"Such a handsome young man, so gentlemanly, such an air!" maundered the miserable woman between her chattering teeth. "It was quite accidental that we met, Rupert, quite accidental, I assure you. Madeleine—poor dear girl—came down with me here, I wanted to show her the g-grave——" here Sophia gurgled convulsively, remembering her brother's cruel reproaches.
"She came here with me, and as I was kneeling down, planting crocuses just here, Rupert, and she was standing there, a young man suddenly leaped over the wall, and fell at her feet. He had not seen me—Alas, it reminded me of my own happiness! And he was so well-dressed, so courteous—and seemed such a perfect gentleman—and he took off his hat so gracefully I am sure I never could have believed it of him. And they confided in me and I promised by—by—those sacred ashes to keep their secret. I remembered of course what Tanty had said in her letter, and quite understood he was the young gentleman in question—but they explained to me how she was under a wrong impression altogether. He said that the instant he laid eyes upon me, he saw I had a feeling heart, and he knew they could trust me. He spoke so nobly, Rupert, and said: What better place could they have for their meetings than one consecrated to such faithful love as this? It was so beautiful—and oh dear! I can't but think there is some mistake." And Miss Landale again wrung her hands.
"But I have proof!" thundered her brother, "convincing proof, of what I have told you. At this very moment the man who would marry Madeleine, forsooth, runs the risk of imprisonment—nay, of the gallows! You may have thought it strange that I should have opened and read letters not addressed to me, but with misfortune hanging over a beloved object I did not pause to consider myself. My only thought was to save her."
Here Mr. Landale looked very magnanimous, and thrust his fingers as he spoke through the upper buttons of his waistcoat with the gesture which traditionally accompanies such sentiments: these cheap effects proved generally irresistible with Sophia. But his personality had paled before the tremendous drama into which the poor romance-loving soul was so suddenly plunged, and in which in spite of all her woe she found an awful kind of fascination. Failing to read any depth of admiration in her roving eye, Rupert promptly abandoned grandiloquence, and resuming his usual voice and manner, he dropped his orders upon her heat of agitation like a cool relentless stream under which her last protest fizzed, sputtered, and went out.
"I mean to unmask the gay lover at my own time and in my own way; never fear, I shall deal gently with her. You will now take this letter of his and put it in your bag, leaving hers in that curious post-office of yours."
"And you will give his letter to her at once when you go in without one word of having met me."
"Y ... yes, Rupert."
"As you are too great a fool to be trusted if you once begin to talk, you will have a headache for the rest of the day and go to bed in a dark room."
"Y ... yes, Rupert."
"You will moreover swear to me, now, that you will not speak of our interview here till I give you leave; say I swear I will not."
"I swear I will not."
"So help me God!"
"So help me God, you fool!"
Sophia's lips murmured an inaudible something; but there was such complete submission in every line and curve of her figure, in the very droop of her ringlets and the helpless appeal of her gaze that Rupert was satisfied. He assisted her to arise from her tombstone, bundled the clerical love-tokens back into the bag, duly placed Captain Jack's letter in the inner pocket, and was about to present her with his arm to conduct her homewards, when he caught sight of a little ragged urchin peeping through the bars of the gate, and seemingly in the very act of making a mysterious signal in the direction of Miss Landale's unconscious figure.
Rupert stared hard at the ruddy, impudent face, which instantly assumed an appearance of the most defiant unconcern, while its owner began to devote his energies to shying stones at an invisible rook upon the old church tower with great nicety of aim.
"Sophia," said her brother in a low tone, "go to the gate: that boy wants to speak to you. Go and see what he wants and return to me."
Miss Landale gasped, gazed at her brother as if she thought him mad, looked round at the little boy, coloured violently, then meeting Rupert's eye again staggered off without a word of protest.
Rupert, shaken with silent laughter, humming a little song to himself, stooped to pick a couple of tender spring flowers from the border beside the grave, and after slipping them into a button-hole of his many caped overcoat, stood looking out over the stretch of land and sea, where Scarthey rose like a dream against the sparkle of the water and the exquisite blue of the sky.
Presently rapid panting breaths and a shuffling rustle of petticoats behind him informed him of his sister's return.
"So you are there, my dear," he said loudly. "One of your little fishing friends from the village, I suppose—a Shearman, unless I am mistaken. Yes, a Shearman; I thought so. Well, shall we return home now? They will be wondering what has become of us. Pray take my arm." Then beneath his breath, seeing that words were struggling to Sophia's lips, "Hold your tongue."
The small ragged boy watched their departure with a derisive grin, and set off at a brisk canter down to the shore, jingling some silver coin in his pocket with relish as he went.
When Rupert and Sophia had reached the wood the former paused.
"Letter or message?"
"Oh, Rupert, it was a letter; had I not better destroy it?"
"Give it to me."
* * * * *
A hasty scrawl, it seemed, folded anyhow. Only two or three lines, yet Rupert conned them for a curiously long time.
"My darling," it ran, "meet me to-day in the ruins at noon. A misfortune has happened to me, but if you trust me, all will still be well.—Your Jack." Mr. Landale at length handed it back to Sophia.
"You will give it to Madeleine with the other," he said briefly. "Mention the fact of the messenger having brought it." And then in a terrible bass he added, "And remember your oath!"
She trembled; but as he walked onwards through the wood, his lips were smiling, and his eyes were alight with triumph.
THE DAY: MORNING
The appointment of a regular light-keeper at Scarthey, intended to release Rene and old Margery from their exile, had been delayed so as to suit the arrangement which was to leave for a time the island domain of Sir Adrian at the disposal of Captain Jack. Meanwhile Moggie's presence greatly mitigated the severity of her husband's separation from his master.
On his side the sailor was in radiant spirits. All worked as he could wish, and Sir Adrian's marriage, besides being a source of unselfish satisfaction, was, with regard to his own prospects, an unexpected help; for, his expedition concluded, he would now be able in the most natural manner to make his appearance at Pulwick, an honoured guest of the master, under the pride of his own name. And for the rest, hope unfolded warm-coloured visions indeed.
During the weeks which had elapsed since Sir Adrian's departure, Captain Jack's visits to the island had been fitful and more or less secret—He always came and left at night. But as it was understood that the place was his to be used and enjoyed as he thought best, neither his sudden appearances with the usual heavy travelling-bag, nor his long absences excited any disturbance in the arcadian life led by Rene between his buxom young wife and the old mother—as the good-humoured husband now termed the scolding dame.
A little sleeping closet had been prepared and allotted to the use of the peripatetic guest in one of the disused rooms when Rene's own accommodation under the light tower had been enlarged for the new requirements of his matrimonial status. And so Monsieur the Captain (in Rene's inveterate outlandish phraseology) found his liberty of action complete. Both the women's curiosity was allayed, and all tendency to prying into the young stranger's mysterious purposes amid their seclusion condemned beforehand, by Rene's statement: that Monsieur the Captain was a trusted friend of the master—one indeed (and here the informant thought fit to stretch a point, if but slightly) to whom the Lord of Pulwick was indebted, in bygone days, for life and freedom.
Except when weather-bound, a state of things which at that time of year occurred not unfrequently, Rene journeyed daily as far as the Hall, ostensibly to report progress and take possible orders, but really to gratify himself with the knowledge that all was well with the master.
About the breakfast hour, upon this 15th of March, as Sir Adrian was discussing with the bailiff sundry matters of importance to the estate, a tap came to the door, which he recognised at once as the Frenchman's own long accustomed mode of self-announcement.
Since he had assumed the reins of government, the whilom recluse had discovered that the management of such a wide property was indeed no sinecure; and moreover—as his brother, who certainly understood such matters in a thoroughly practical manner, had warned him—that a person of his own philosophical, over-benevolent and abstracted turn of mind, was singularly ill-fitted for the task. But a strong sense of duty and a determination to act by it will carry a man a long way. He had little time for dreaming and this was perhaps a providential dispensation, for Sir Adrian's musings had now lost much of the grave placidity born of his long, peaceful residence in his Thelema of Scarthey. The task was long and arduous; on sundry occasions he was forced to consult his predecessor on the arcana of landed estate government, which he did with much simplicity, thereby giving Mr. Landale, not only inwardly mocking satisfaction, but several opportunities for the display of his self-effacing loyalty and superior capacities.
The business of this day was of sufficiently grave moment to make interruption unwelcome—being nothing less than requests from a number of tenants to the "Good Sir Adrian," "the real master come to his own again"—for a substantial reduction of rent; a step towards which the master's heart inclined, but which his sober reason condemned as preposterous. But Rene's countenance, as he entered, betrayed news of such import that Sir Adrian instantly adjourned the matter on hand, and, when the bailiff had retired, anxiously turned to the new-comer, who stood in the doorway mopping his steaming brow.
"Well, Renny," said he, "what is wrong? Nothing about your wife—?"
"No, your honour," answered the man, "your honour is very good. Nothing wrong with our Moggie. But the captain.... I ran all the way from the Shearmans."
"No accident there, I hope."
"I fear there is, your honour. The captain—he has been attacked this morning."
"Not wounded—!" exclaimed Sir Adrian. "Not dead, Renny?"
"Oh no, your honour, well. But he has, I fear, killed one of the men ... the revenue men—"
Then, seeing his master start aghast, he went on rapidly;
"At least he is very bad—but what for did he come to make the spy upon our island? We have left him at the Shearmans—the mother Shearman will nurse him. But the captain, your honour"—the speaker lowered his voice to a whisper and advanced a step, looking round—"that is the worst of all, the captain has turned mad, I believe—Instead of going off with his ship and his crew, (they are safe out to sea, as they should be) he remains at Scarthey. Yes—in your honour's rooms. He is walking up and down and clutching his hair and talking to himself, like a possessed. And when I respectfully begged him to consider that it was of the last folly his having rested instead of saving himself, I might as well have tried to reason a mule. And so, knowing that your honour would never forgive me if misfortune arrived, I never drew breath till I reached here to tell you. If his honour would come himself he might be able to make Mr. his friend hear reason—Your honour will run no risk, for it is only natural that you should go to the peel after what has occurred—but if you cannot get Mr. the captain to depart this night, there will arrive to us misfortune—it is I who tell you so."
"I will go back with you, at once," said Sir Adrian, rising much perturbed. "Wait here while I speak to Lady Landale."
Molly was standing by the great log fire in the hall, yawning fit to dislocate her pretty jaws, and teasing the inert form of old Jim, as he basked before the flame, with the tip of her pretty foot. She allowed her eyes to rest vaguely upon her husband as he approached, but neither interrupted her idle occupation nor endeavoured to suppress the yawn that again distended her rosy lips.
He looked at her for a moment in silence; then laying a hand upon her shoulder, said gently: "My child, I am called back to Scarthey and must leave instantly. You—you will be careful of yourself—amuse yourself during my absence—it may be for two or three days."
Lady Landale raised her black brows with a fine air of interrogation, and then gazed down at the old dog till the lashes swept her cheek, while a mocking dimple just peeped from the corner of her mouth and was gone again. "Oh yes," she answered drily, "I shall take endless care of myself and amuse myself wildly. You need have no fear of that."
Sir Adrian sighed, and his hand fell listless from her shoulder.
"Good-bye, then," he said, and stooped it seemed hesitatingly to lay his lips between the little dark tendrils of hair that danced upon her forehead. But with a sudden movement she twitched her face away. "Despite all the varied delights which bind me to Pulwick," she remarked carelessly, "the charms of Sophia and Rupert's company, and all the other amusements—I have a fancy to visit your old owl's nest again—so we need not waste sentiment upon a tender parting, need we?"
Sir Adrian's cheek flushed, and with a sudden light in his eyes he glanced at her quickly; but his countenance faded into instant melancholy again, at sight of her curling lip and cold amused gaze.
"Will you not have me?" she asked.
"If you will come—you will be welcome—as welcome," his voice shook a little, "as my wife must always be wherever I am."
"Ah—oh," yawned Lady Landale, "(excuse me pray—it's becoming quite an infirmity) so that is settled. I hope it will storm to-night, that the wind will blow and howl—and then I snuggle in the feather bed in that queer old room and try and fancy I am happy Molly de Savenaye again."
Adrian's lip quivered; yet in a second or two he spoke lightly. "I do not want to hurry you, but I have to leave at once." Then struck by a sudden thought, by that longing to bring pleasure to others which was always working in him, "Why not let Madeleine come with you too?" he asked, "she could share your room, and—it would be a pleasure to her I think." He sighed as he thought of the trouble in store for the lovers.
Lady Landale grew red to the roots of her hair and shot a look of withering scorn at her husband's unconscious face. "It would be charming," she said, sarcastically, "but after all I don't know that I care to go so much—oh, don't stare at me like that, for goodness' sake! A woman may change her mind, I suppose—at least, in a trifle here and there if she can't as regards the whole comfort of her life.—Well, well, perhaps I shall go—this afternoon—later—you can start now. I shall follow—I can always get a boat at the Shearmans. And I shall bring Madeleine, of course—it is most kind and thoughtful of you to suggest it. Mon Dieu, I have a husband in a thousand!"
She swept him a splendid curtsey, kissed her hand at him, and then burst out laughing at the pale bewilderment of his face.
* * * * *
When Sir Adrian returned to the morning-room, he found Rene, half hidden behind the curtain folds, peering curiously out of the window which overlooked the avenue. On his master's entrance, the man turned his head, placed his finger on his lip, and beckoned him to approach. "If I may take the liberty," said he with subdued voice, "will his honour come and look out, without showing himself?"
And he pointed to a group, consisting of Mr. Landale and two men in blue jackets and cockaded hats of semi-naval appearance, now slowly approaching the house. Mr. Landale was listening with bent head, slightly averted, to the smaller of his two companions—a stout square-looking fellow, who spoke with evident volubility, whilst the other followed defferentially one pace in rear. Presently the trio halted, a few yards from the entrance, and Mr. Landale, cutting designs upon the sand with the end of his stick in a meditative way, appeared to be giving directions at some length, on the conclusion of which the two men, touching their hats with much respect, departed together, while the magistrate pensively proceeded on his way to the house.
"Those, your honour," said Rene, "were with him that was struck in the fight this morning. It was I rowed them over, together with the wounded. I left them at the Shearmans, and slipped away myself to carry the news. If I might take upon myself to advise, it would be better if your honour would come with me now, at once, for fear Mr. Landale should delay us by questioning me—Mr. Landale being a magistrate, as I heard these men say; and Moggie has assured me that he always arranges himself for knowing when I arrive from the island—ever since the day when the demoiselles had just come, and I found it out. Ever since then he has not liked me, Mr. Landale. Come away, your honour, before he finds out I have been here to-day."
Following upon this advice, which he found to the point, Sir Adrian left his house by a back passage; and, through a side garden, found his way to the coast and to the fishing village.
The wounded man who had not recovered consciousness, lay in the brother Shearman's hut, as Rene had said, surrounded by such uncouth attendance as the rude fisherfolk could dispense. After giving directions for the summoning of medical aid and the removal, if it should prove advisable, of the patient to the Hall, but without a single comment upon the unfortunate occurrence, Sir Adrian then took the road of the peel.
During the transit, walking rapidly by his master's side, across the now bare causeway, Rene gave his account of events.
The captain (he related) after three days' absence had re-appeared the night before the last, and requested him to warn the womankind not to be alarmed if they heard, as no doubt they would, strange noises on the beach at night. He was, said he, storing provisions and water for the forthcoming journey, and the water in the well was so excellent that he had determined to take in his store. Of course his honour understood well that Rene did not concern himself in these matters; but that was the explanation he conveyed to his wife, lest she should be alarmed and wonder. As for the old mother, she was too deaf to be awakened out of sleep by anything short of the trumpet of the last judgment.
As announced, there had been during the night the noise of a party of men landing, of the hoisting and rolling of barrels—a great remue-menage altogether—and the next morning, that was yesterday, the captain had slept sound in his bunk till late.
During several hours of the following day, he had some secret work to do in the caves of which Rene had shown the ins and outs, and whilst so engaged had requested that watch should be kept from the light-tower, and message sent by some arranged signal should any one approach the island. But no one had come near. Whilst at his post, the watcher had heard at different times the sound of hammering; and when the captain had come to relieve him, the good gentleman was much begrimed with dust and hot with work, but appeared in excellent humour. In the castle, he sang and whistled for joyfulness, and made jokes with Moggie, all in his kind way, saying that if he were not to be married himself soon, he would feel quite indignant and jealous at the happiness of such a rascal as her husband.
Oh! he was happy—Monsieur the Captain—he had brought Moggie a beautiful shawl; and to Rene, he had given a splendid watch, telling him to keep count of the hours of his unmerited bliss. Alas, this morning all had been different indeed! The captain looked another man; his face was as white as linen. The very look of him would have told any one that a misfortune had occurred. Rene did not quite understand it himself, but this is what had taken place:
The captain had left Scarthey on foot late in the evening, and when he returned (he was not long away) he bade Rene again not to mind what he heard during the night; and, in faith, once more there had been a real noise of the devil; men coming to and fro, a deal of rowing on the water, away and back again, in the early night and then once more before dawn.
"But I was not unquiet," said Rene, "I knew they had come for the remainder of what Mr. Smith was pleased to call his provisions. From our room I could see by the light on the stairs that the lamp was burning well, and Moggie slept like a child, so sound, she never moved. Just before the rising sun, I had got up and put out the lamp, and was going to bed again, when there came thumps of the devil at the lower door. Well knowing that the captain had his own way of entering—for he had spent many days in finding out all sorts of droll passages in the ruins—I was quite seized; and as I hurried down, the thumps came again and great cries for the lighthouse-keeper. And, your honour, when I unbarred the door, there was a man in uniform whom I did not know, and he asked me, grumbling, if I knew of the pretty doings on the beach, whilst I slept like pig, he said—Of course I made the astonished as his honour may imagine: I knew nothing, had heard nothing, though my heart was beating like to burst not knowing what was coming. Then he ordered me to lend a hand and bring a ladder to carry away one of his men who had been murdered by the smugglers, he said. And there, on the sands, in front of the small cave was another man, in a blue coat too, watching over the body of one who was stretched out, quite tranquil, his face covered with blood and his eyes closed. They are gone, says the gross man. And I was glad, as your honour may well think, to see the chaloupe full of the captain's men rowing hard towards the vessel. She had just come out of the river mouth and was doubling round the banks. We carried the man on his ladder to the kitchen and we and the women did all we could, but he remained like a log. So after a time the two men (who said they had come along the dyke soon after midnight, on foot, as they thought it would be more secret, and had watched all night in the bent) wanted to eat and drink and rest. They had missed their game, the big man said; they had been sent to find out what sort of devil's tricks were being played on in the island unbeknown to Sir Adrian;—but it was the devil's luck altogether, for the smugglers had slipped away and would not be seen in this part of the world again. That is the way the fat man spoke. The other had nothing to say, but swallowed our bacon and our beer as if he did not care. And then, your honour, they told me I should have to lend them the yawl to go on land, and go myself to help, and take the body with us. And as he was speaking, I saw Moggie the wife, who had been backwards and forwards serving them, looking at me very straight but without blowing a word, as if she had fear. And all at once I felt there was something on foot. So I drew the men more beer and said I would see after the yawl. Outside the door the wife whispered: 'Upstairs, quick! Renny,' and she herself whisked back into the kitchen so that she should not cause suspicion to those others—Ah, your honour, that is a woman!"
"Well, well," interrupted his master, anxiously.
"Well, I went upstairs, four by four; and there, in your honour's room, without an attempt to conceal himself (when any moment it might have entered into those brigands' heads downstairs to search the place), there was Monsieur the Captain, raging up and down, like a wolf in cage, as I had the honour to describe before. No wonder Moggie was afraid for him. A woman is quick to feel danger ahead. He looked at me as if he did not know me, his face all unmade. 'You know what has happened;' he says. 'Am I not the most unfortunate...? All is lost.' 'With respect,' says I; 'nothing is lost so long as life is safe, but it is not a good thing Monsieur the Captain that you are here, like this, when you should be on your good ship as many miles away as she can make. Are you mad?' to him I say, and he to me, 'I think I am.' 'At least let me hide you,' I beg of him, 'I know of many beautiful places,' and so for the matter of that does he. But it was all lost trouble. At length he sits down at the table and begins to write, and his look brightens: 'You can help me, my good friend,' he says; 'I have a hope left—who knows—who knows,'—and he writes a few lines like an enraged and folds them and kisses the billet. 'Find means,' says he, 'Rene, to get Johnny, the Shearman boy, to take this to the old churchyard and place it in the place he knows of; or, better still, should he chance upon Miss Landale to give it to her. He is a sharp rogue,' says he, 'and I can trust his wits; but should you not find him, dear Rene, you must do the commission for me yourself. Now go—go,' he cries, and pushes me to the stairs. And, as I dared remain no more, I had to leave him. Of course Monsieur the Captain has not been here all this time without telling me of his hopes, and it is clear that it is to bid farewell to Mademoiselle Madeleine that he is playing with his life. It is as ill reasoning with a lover as a lunatic: they are the same thing, Ma foi, but I trust to your honour to bring him to his senses if any one can. And so, to continue, I went down and I told the men in blue the boat was ready, we carried the body; I left them at the Shearmans, as your honour knows. I found Johnny and gave him the letter; he knew all about what to do, it seemed. And then I came straight to the Hall."
"It is indeed a miserable business!" said Sir Adrian.
Rene heaved a great sigh of sympathy, as he noticed the increasing concern on his master's face.
"You heard them mention my brother's name?" inquired the latter, after following the train of his misgivings for a few moments. "You have reason to think that Mr. Landale knew of these men's errand; other reason, I mean, than having seen them with him just now?"
Rene's quick mind leaped at the meaning of the question:
"Yes, your honour. 'Mr. Landale will want to know of this,' says the fat one; 'though it is too late,' he says." And Rene added ruefully: "I have great fear. The captain is not at the end of his pains, if Mr. Landale is ranged against him!"
Such was also Sir Adrian's thought. But he walked on for a time in silence; and, having reached Scarthey, rapidly made his way into the peel.
Captain Jack was still pacing the room much as Rene had described when Sir Adrian entered upon him. The young man turned with a transient look of surprise to the new-comer, then waved away the proffered hand with a bitter smile.
"You do not know," he said, "who it is you would shake hands with—an outlaw—a criminal. Ah, you have heard? Then Renny, I suppose, has told you."
"Yes," groaned the other, holding his friend by both shoulders and gazing sorrowfully into the haggard face, "the man may die—oh, Jack, Jack, how could you be so rash?"
"I can't say how it all happened," answered Captain Jack, falling to his walk to and fro again in the extremity of his distress, and ever and anon mopping his brow. "I felt such security in this place. All was loaded but the last barrel, when, all of a sudden, from God knows where, the man sprang on me and thrust his dark lantern in my face. 'It is Smith,' I heard him say. I do believe now that he only wanted to identify me. No man in his senses could have dared to try and arrest me surrounded by my six men. But I had no time to think then, Adrian. I imagined the fellow was leading a general attack.... If that last barrel was seized the whole secret was out; and that meant ruin. Wholesale failure seemed to menace me suddenly in the midst of my success. I had a handspike in my hand with which I had been helping to roll the kegs. I struck with it, on the spur of the moment; the man went down on the spot, with a groan. As he fell I leaped back, ready for the next. I called out, 'Stretchers, lads; they want to take your captain?' My lads gathered round me at once. But there was silence; not another creature to be seen or heard. They set to work to get that last blessed bit of cargo, the cause of all the misery, on board with the rest; while I stood in the growing dawn, looking down at the motionless figure and at the blood trickling into the sand, trying to think, to settle what to do, and only conscious of one thing: the intense wish that I could change places with my victim. Can you wonder, Adrian, that my brain was reeling? You who know all, all this means to me, can you wonder that I could not leave this shore—even though my life depended on it—without seeing her again! Curwen, my mate, came up to me at last, and I woke up to some sort of reason at the idea that they, the crew and the ship, must be removed from the immediate danger. But the orders I gave must have seemed those of a madman: I told him to sail right away but to double back in time to have the schooner round again at twelve noon to-day, and then to send the gig's crew to pick me up on Pulwick sand. 'Life and death,' said I to him, and he, brave fellow, 'Ay, ay, sir,' as if it was the most simple thing in the world, and off with him without another word."
"What imprudence, what imprudence!" murmured Sir Adrian.
"Who knows? None will believe that I have not seized the opportunity of making my escape with the others. The height of imprudence may become the height of security. I have as yet no plan—but it will come. My luck shall not fail me now! who knows: nothing perhaps is damaged but an excise man's crown. Thank heaven, the wind cannot fail us to-day."
"But, meanwhile," urged Sir Adrian, quite unconvinced, highly disturbed, "that treasure on board.... I know what has been your motive, Jack, but indeed it is all nothing short of insanity, positive insanity. Can you trust your men?"
"I would trust them with my own secrets, willingly enough; but not with those of other people. So they do not know what I have in those barrels. Four thousand golden guineas in each...! No, the temptation would be too terrible for the poor lads. Not a soul knows that, beyond you and me. Curwen has charge of the cargo, such as it is. But I can answer for it none of them will dream of tampering with the casks. They are picked men, sober, trusty; who have fought side by side with me. I am their best friend. They are mine, body and soul, I believe. They do know there is some risk in the business, but they trust me. They are sure of treble pay, and besides, are not troubled with squeamishness. As for Curwen, he would go to hell for me, and never ask a question. No, Adrian, the scheme was perfect, but for this cursed blow of mine this morning. And now it is a terrible responsibility," continued the young man, again wiping his forehead; "every ounce of it weighs on my shoulders. But it is not that that distracts me. Oh, Adrian ... Madeleine!"
The elder man felt his heart contract at the utter despairing of that cry.
"When my handspike crashed on that damned interferer's skull," the sailor went on, "I felt as if the blow had opened an unfathomable chasm between her and me. Now I am felon—yes, in law, a felon! And yet I am the same man as yesterday. I shall have to fly to-night, and may never be able to return openly to England again. All my golden dreams of happiness, of honour, vanished at the sound of that cursed blow. But I must see her, Adrian, I must see her before I go. I am going to meet her at noon, in the ruins of Pulwick."
"Impossible!" ejaculated the other aghast. "Listen, Jack, unfortunate man! When I heard of the—the misfortune, and of your folly in remaining, I instantly planned a last meeting for you. As it fell out, my wife has a fancy to spend the night here: I have asked her to bring her sister with her. But this inconceivably desperate plan of leaving in your ship, in broad light of day, frustrates all I would have done for you. For God's sake let us contrive some way of warning the Peregrine off till midnight; keep hidden, yourself; do not wilfully run your head into the noose!"
But the young man had stopped short in his tramping, and stood looking at his friend, with a light of hope flaming in his eye.
"You have done that, Adrian! You have thought of that!" he repeated, as if mechanically. A new whirlwind of schemes rushed through his mind. For a while he remained motionless, with his gaze fixed on Sir Adrian, putting order in his own thoughts with that genius of precision and swiftness which, in strong natures, rises to meet a crisis. Then advancing, and seizing him by both hands:
"Adrian," he cried, in something more like his own voice, again, "I shall yet owe my happiness to you, to this thought, this sublime thought of your heart!"
And, as Sir Adrian, astounded, unable to understand this extremity of hopefulness, following upon the previous depth of misery, stared back at him, speechless, the latter proceeded in still more surprising fashion.
"Now, you listen to me, this time. I have been selfish in running the risk of having you mixed up in my dangerous affairs. But, God is my witness, I acted under the belief that all was absolutely secure. Now, however, you must do nothing more that might implicate you. Remember, do nothing to let people suspect that you have seen me to-day. Renny, too, must keep close counsel. You know nothing of my future movements. Remain here for a while, do not even look out of the window.... I fear we shall not meet for a long time. Meanwhile, God bless you—God bless you!"
After another wrench of the hands he held in his, the sailor released them and fairly ran out of the room, without heeding his friend's bewildered expostulations. At the door of the keep he met Rene again. And after a brief but earnest colloquy, the man whose life was now forfeit to the community and upon whose head there would soon be a price, was quietly walking along the causeway, making for the shore, with the greatest apparent unconcern and deliberation.
And whilst Sir Adrian, alone in his chamber, with his head resting upon his hand, anxiously pondered upon the possible issues of this nefarious day's doings, the sailor advanced, in broad daylight towards the land to keep his appointment.
* * * * *
A solitary speck of life upon the great waste, with the consciousness of the precarious thread of chance upon which it hung! What wonder that, for all his daring, the traveller felt, as he deliberately regulated his pace to the most nonchalant gait, a frantic desire to run forward, or to lie down! How many approach glasses might now be laid, like so many guns, upon him from secret points of the coast until he came within range of recognition; what ambushes those clumps of gorse and juniper, those plantations of alders and young firs on the bluffs yonder, might conceal? The eye could reach far and wide upon the immense stretch of sand, along the desert coast; and his solitary figure, moving upon the yellow strand was a mark for miles around. Steadily, nevertheless did he advance; the very daring, the unpardonable foolhardiness of the deed his safety. And yet the strain was high. Were they watching the island? Among the eager crew, to each of whom the capture might mean a splendid prize and chance of promotion, was there one would have the genius of suddenly suspecting that this foolhardy wayfarer might be the man they wanted and not merely Sir Adrian returning on foot towards his home?... And then came the answer of hopeful youth and hardy courage——.
No. The preventive are a lubberly lot—It will require something better than a water-guard to track and take Lucky Jack Smith!
* * * * *
But for all his assurance Lucky Jack Smith drew a long breath of relief when he felt the shadow of Pulwick woods closing around him at last.
THE DAY: NOON
There stood two men and they did point their fingers at that house. And on his finger one had blood; the other's finger shook.
Broken lengths of wall, a crumbling indication of the spring of once exquisite arches, windows gaping darkly like the eye sockets of a skull—this was all that was left of the old priory of Pulwick, whilom proud seat of clerical power and learning. But the image of decay was robbed of all melancholy by the luxuriance of climbing vegetation, by the living screen of noble firs and larches arranged in serried ranks upon the slopes immediately behind it, with here and there a rugged sentinel within the ruinous yards and rooms themselves; by wild bushes of juniper and gorse and brambles. And, with the bright noon sun pouring down upon the worn red sandstone, and gilding the delicate tassels of the larches' green needles; with the light of young love, spreading glamour upon every leaf and stone, in the eyes of the lovers, the scene, witness of so many sweet meetings, bore that day a beautiful and home-like aspect.
Captain Jack was standing upon the grass-grown floor of what had been the departed monks' refectory, with ears eagerly bent to listen.
Three ragged walls, a clump of fir trees, and a bank of brambles screened him from any chance passer-by, and he now and again peered through a crevice on to a path through the woods, cautiously, as if fearful to venture forth. His face was pale beneath its tan, and had none of its usual brightness; his attire for him was disordered; his whole appearance that of a man under the pressure of doubt and anxiety. Yet, when the sound of a light footfall struck among the thousand whispering noises of wind and leaf that went to make up the silence of the ruins, the glory of joy that lit up eye and lip left no room for any other impression.
Madeleine stood in the old doorway: a vision of beautiful life amid emblems of decay and death.
"I come alone to-day," she said, with her half-shy smile. And then, before she could utter a further word of explanation, she was gathered into her lover's strong arms with a passion he had never as yet shown in his chivalrous relations with her. But it was not because they met without the sympathetic rapture of Miss Landale's eye upon them; not because there was no other witnesses but the dangling ivy wreath, the stern old walls, the fine dome of spring sky faintly blue; not because of lover's audacious joy. This Madeleine, feeling the stormy throbbing of his heart against hers, knew with sure instinct. She pushed him gently from her as soon as she could, the blushes chased from her cheeks by pale misgivings, and looked at him with eyes full of troubled questioning.
Then he spoke, from his full heart:
"Madeleine, something has happened—a misfortune, as I wrote to you. I must now start upon my venture sooner than I thought—at once. I shall have to fly in fact, to-day. There have been spies upon me, and my secret trust is in danger. How they have tracked me, how suspicion has been aroused, I cannot guess. But I have been tracked. A fellow came at dawn. I had to defend my secret—the secret not my own, the charge entrusted to me. The man was hurt. I cannot explain, dear love, there is no time; even now I run the risk of my life by being here, and life is so dear to me now, my Madeleine! Hush! No, do not be afraid! I am afraid of nothing, so long as you trust me. Will you trust me? I cannot leave you here behind; and now, with this cursed stroke of ill-luck, this suspicion upon me, it may be long before I can return to England. I cannot leave you behind, I cannot! Will you trust me, Madeleine, will you come with me? We shall be married in France, my darling. You should be as a queen in the guard of her most humble slave. I am half mad to think I must go. Ah, kiss me, love, and say yes! Listen! I must sail away and make believe that I have gone. My Peregrine is a bird that none can overtake, but I shall come back to-night. Listen: If you will be on the island to-night—Sir Adrian is there already, and I hear your sister is coming—a freak of fancy—and he, God bless him, has told her to bring you too (it shows my luck has not deserted me yet). I shall be there, unknown to all except Renny. I cannot meet you nearer home, but you will be my own brave bride and keep your own counsel. You will not be frightened, will you, my beautiful love? All you have to do is to follow Renny's instructions. My ship will be back, waiting, an hour after dark, ready, when you set foot on it, to spread its wings with its treasures—treasures, indeed! And then we shall have the world before us—riches, love, such love! And once safe, I shall be free to prove to you that it is no common blood I would mate with that dear and pure stream that courses in your veins. You shall soon know all; will you trust me?"
She hung upon his hot words, looking at him with loving, frightened eyes. Now he gathered her to his arms again, again his bursting heart throbbed its stormy passion to her ear. She was as one carried away by a torrent against which resistance is useless. He bent his head over her face; the scent of the bunch of violets in her breast rose deliciously to his nostrils. Alas! Hubert Cochrane was not to reach that kiss of acquiescence, that kiss from which it seemed that but so small a fraction of space and time divided him! Some one, who had stepped along in the shadow as silently as a cat coming upon a bird, clapped here a hand upon his shoulder.
"Who are you, sir, and what do you want?" exclaimed Captain Jack, wrenching himself free, falling back a pace and measuring the new-comer from head to foot with furious glances, while, with burning blushes Madeleine faltered:
Nothing awakens anger in hot blood sooner than an unsanctioned touch. In certain moods the merest contact is as infuriating as a blow. Such an insult, added to the irreparable injury of interrupting their meeting at the most exquisite and crucial moment, drove Captain Jack beside himself with rage.
But Madeleine's hand was still on his arm. She felt it suddenly harden and twitch with murderous anger. But, by an effort that made the veins of his temple swell like whipcord, he refrained from striking the double offender.
Mr. Landale surveyed the pair for a moment in silence with his grave look; then coldly he answered the sailor's irate speech.
"My name, fellow, is Rupert Landale. I am here to protect my cousin from an unprincipled and criminal adventurer."
"You take a sharp tone sir," cried Captain Jack, the flush on his face deepening yet a shade, his nostrils ominously dilated, yet speaking without further loss of self-control. "You probably count upon the presence of this lady to prevent my resenting it; but as my time with her is short and I have still much to say, I shall be forced promptly to eject you from the ruins here, unless you will be good enough to immediately remove yourself. I shall hope for another meeting with you to discuss the question as to your right of interference; but to-day—I cannot spare the time."
Rupert smiled without moving; then the sailor gently disengaging himself from Madeleine would have put her behind him but that she pressed forward and laid a hand upon an arm of each of the men.
"Stay, Jack," she pleaded, "let me speak. There is some mistake here. Cousin Rupert, you cannot know that I am engaged to this gentleman and that he is a friend of your brother's as well as of other good friends of mine."
"My poor child," answered Rupert, closing a cold hand gently over hers and speaking with a most delicate tenderness of accent, "you have been grossly imposed upon, and so have others. As for my poor brother Adrian, he is, if anything, easier to deceive than you, innocent convent-bred girl! I would have you to go home, my dear, and leave me to deal with this—gentleman. You have bitter truths to learn; would it not be better to wait and learn them quietly without further scandal?"
This was too much for Captain Jack, who fairly ground his teeth. Rupert's honeyed tones, his grasp of Madeleine's hand were more unbearable even than the words. He advanced upon the elder man and seizing him by the collar whirled him away from the girl as easily as a straw puppet.
The fine gentleman of sensitive nerves and unworked sinews had no chance against the iron strength of the man who had passed all the years of virility fighting against sea and storm. The two faced each other; Jack Smith, red and panting with honest rage, only the sense of his lady's proximity keeping him from carrying his high-handed measures a little further. Mr. Landale, livid, with eyes suddenly black in their orbits, moistening his white lips while he quivered from head to foot with a passion so tense that not even his worst enemy could have attributed it to fear.
An unequal match it would seem, yet unequal in a way that the young man, in the conscious glory of his strength could not have conceived. Madeleine neither screamed nor fainted; she had grown white, in natural apprehension, but her eyes fixed upon her lover's face shone with admiration. Mr. Landale turned slowly towards her.
"Madeleine," he said, readjusting his stock and smoothing the folds of his collar with a steadfast striving after coolness, "you have been grossly deceived. The man you would trust with your life and honour is a mere smuggler. He has no doubt told you fine stories, but if he has given himself out for aught else he lied, take my word for it—he lied. He is a common smuggler, and the vessel he would carry you away in is packed with smuggled goods. To-day he has attacked and wounded an officer, who, in the discharge of his duty, endeavoured to find out the nature of his suspicious purpose. Your would-be lover's neck is in danger. A felon, he runs the risk of his life every moment he remains on land—but he would make a last effort to secure the heiress! Look at him," his voice raising in spite of himself to a shriller pitch—"he cannot deny it!"
Madeleine gazed from one to the other. Her mind, never a very quick one at decision, was too bewildered to act with clearness; moreover with her education and ignorance of the world the indictment conveyed no special meaning to her.
But there was an agony of suspense and beseeching in the glance that her lover cast upon her; and to that appeal she smiled proudly. Hers were no true love, she felt, were its confidence shaken by the slandering of anger. Then the thought of his danger, danger admitted by his own lips, flashed upon her with terror. She rushed to him,
"Oh go, Jack, go!—As you love me, go!"
Mr. Landale, who had already once or twice cast impatient looks of expectation through a window of the east wall, taken by surprise at this unforeseen result of his speech, suddenly climbed up upon a broken piece of stone-work, from which there was an abrupt descent towards the shore, and began to signal in eager gesticulation. There was a sound of heavy running footfalls without. Captain Jack raised his head, every nerve on the alert.
"Go, go," again cried Madeleine, dreading she knew not what.—A fat panting red face looked over the wall; Mr. Landale turned for a second to throw at the lovers a glance of elation.
But it seemed as if the sailor's spirits rose at the breath of danger. He rapidly looked round upon the ruins from which there were no other outlets than the window guarded by Mr. Landale, and the doorway in which the red-faced new-comer now stood, framed in red stone; then, like a cat he darted on to the ledge of the wall at the opposite end, where some invading boughs of larch dropped over the jagged crest, before the burly figure in the blue coat of the preventive service had recovered from the surprise of finding a lady in his way, or gathered his wits and his breath sufficiently to interfere.
There the nimble climber stood a moment balancing himself lightly, though the ivied stones rocked beneath him.
"I go, love," he cried in ringing voice, "but one word from you and I go——"
"Oh, I trust you! I will trust you!" screamed the girl in despair, while her fascinated gaze clung to the erect figure silhouetted against the sky and the stout man looked up, open-mouthed. Mr. Landale snarled at him:
"Shoot, fool—shoot!" And straining forward, himself drew a pistol from the man's belt, cocked it and thrust it into his grasp.
Captain Jack kissed his hand to Madeleine with a joyful gesture, then waved his hat defiantly in Rupert's direction, and with a spring disappeared, just as the pistol cracked, drawing a shriek of terror from the girl, and its bullet flattened itself against the upper stone of the wall—considerably wide of the mark.
"Come, this way——!" screamed Mr. Landale from his window sill, "you have another!"
But the preventive shook his head, and thrust his smoking barrel back through his belt, with an air of philosophical resignation; and slowly approaching the window, through which the fugitive could now be seen steadily bowling down the seaward slope, observed in slow, fat tones:
"Give you a hand, sir?"
Rupert, thrusting his extended arm aside jumped down beside him as if he would have sprung at his throat.
"Why are you so late?—why have you brought no one with you? I gave you notice enough. You fool! You have let him slip through your fingers, now, after all! Couldn't you even shoot straight? Such a mark as he made against the sky—Pah! well may the sailors say, lubberly as a land preventive——!"
"Why, there you are, Mr. Landale!" answered the man with imperturbable, greasy good-humour. "The way you shoved that there pistol into my hand was enough to put off anybody. But you country magistrate gentlemen, as I have always said, you are the real sort to make one do illegal actions with your flurry and your hurry over everything. 'Shoot!' says you, and damme, sir, if I didn't shoot straight off before I knew if I were on my head or on my heels. It's a mercy I didn't hit the sweet young lady—it is indeed. And as for the young gentleman, though to be sure he did show a clean pair of heels at the sight of me, I had no proper time for i-dentification—no time for i-den-ti-fi-cation, Mr. Landale, sir. So I say, sir, it's a mercy I did not hit him either, now I can think of it. Ah, slow and sure, that's my motter! I takes my man on his boat, in the very middle of his laces and his brandy and his silk—I takes him, sir, in the very act of illegality, red-handed, so to speak, and then, if he shows fight, or if he runs away, then I shoots, sir, and then if I hits, why it's a good job too—but none of this promiscuous work for Augustus Hobson. Slow and sure, that's my motter."
The speaker who had been rolling a quid of tobacco in his mouth during this exposition of policy, here spat emphatically upon the grass, and catching Madeleine's abstracted eye, begged pardon for the liberty with a gallant air.
"Aye, so slow, man, that you are pretty sure to fail," muttered Mr. Landale.
"I knows my business, sir, meaning no offence," retorted Mr. Hobson serenely. "When I has no orders I acts on regulation. I brought no one with me because I had no one to bring, having sent, as per regulation, my one remaining man to give notice to the water service, seeing that that there schooner has had the impudence to come back, and is at this very moment cruising quite happy-like just the other side of the bank; though if ever their cutter overhauls her—well, I'm a Dutchman! You might have done wiser, perhaps (if I may make so bold as to remark), to leave the management of this business to them as understands such things. As to being late, sir, you told me to be in the ruins at twelve noon, and I beg to insinuate that it's only just past the hour now."
At this point the preventive man drew from his capacious breeches a brass time-piece, of congenial stoutness, the face of which he turned towards the magistrate.
The latter, however, waved the proffered witness impatiently aside. Furtively watching his cousin, who, leaning against the door-post, her pale head thrown out in strong relief by the dark stones, stood as if absolutely detached from her surroundings, communing over troubled thoughts with her own soul, he said with deliberate distinctness:
"But have I been misled, then, in understanding that you were with the unfortunate officer who was so ferociously assaulted this morning? that you and he did come upon this Captain Smith, red-handed as you call it, loading or unloading his vessel on Scarthey Island?"
"Aye, sir," rolled out the other, unctuously, "there you are again, you see. Poor Nat Beavor, he was one of your hot-headed ones, and see what it has brought him to—a crack in his skull, sir, so that it will be days before he'll know himself again, the doctor says, if ever he does in this world, which I don't think. Ah, I says to him, when we started in the dawn this morning agreeable to our arrangement with you: 'For peeping and prying on the quiet without any running risks and provoking others to break the law more than they're doing, I'm your man,' says I; 'but as for attacking desperate individles without proper warrant and authority, not to speak of being one to ten, I tell you fair, Nat Beavor, I'll have nothing to do with it.' But Nat, he went off his head, clean, at the sight of Captain Jack and his men a trundling the little kegs down the sands, as neat and tidy as could be; and so he cut out from behind the rocks, and I knew there was mischief ahead! Ah, poor fellow, if he would only have listened to me! I did my best for him, sir; started off to call up the other man, who was on the other side of the ruins, as soon as I saw his danger, but when I came back——"
"The birds were flown, of course," interrupted Rupert with a sneer, "and you found the body of your comrade who had been dastardly wounded, and who, I hear, is dead now. So the villain has twice escaped you. Cousin Madeleine," hastily breaking off to advance to the girl, who now awakening from her reflective mood seemed about to leave the ruins, "Cousin Madeleine, are you going? Let me escort you back."
She slowly turned her blue eyes, burning upon him from her white face. "Cousin Rupert, I do not want your company." Then she added in a whisper, yet with a passion for which Rupert would never have given her credit and which took him vastly by surprise, "I shall never forgive you."
"My God, Madeleine," cried he, with genuine emotion, "have I deserved this? I have had no thought but to befriend you, I have opened your eyes to your own danger——"
"Hold your tongue, sir," she broke in, with the same repressed anger. "Cease vilifying the man I love. All your aspersions, your wordy accusations will not shake my faith in him. Mon Dieu," she cried, with an unsteady attempt at laughter, looking under her lashes and tilting her little white round chin at Mr. Hobson, who, now seated upon a large stone, and with an obtrusive quid of tobacco bulging in an imperfectly shorn cheek, was mopping his forehead with a doubtful handkerchief. "That is the person, I suppose, whose testimony I am to believe against my Jack!"
"Your Jack was prompt enough in running away from him, such as he is," retorted her cousin bitterly. He could not have struck, for his purpose, upon a weaker joint in her poor woman's armour of pride and trust.
She caught her breath sharply, as if indeed she had received a blow. "Well, say your say," she exclaimed, coming to a standstill and facing him; "I will hear all that you and your—your friend have to say, lest," with a magnificent toss of her head, "you fancy I am afraid, or that I believe one word of it all. I know that Jack—that Captain Smith, as he is called—is engaged upon a secret and important mission; but it is one, Rupert, which all English gentlemen should wish to help, not impede."
"Do you know what the mission is—do you know to whom? And if, my fair cousin, it is such that all English gentlemen would help, why then this secrecy?"
She bit her lip; but it trembled. "What is it you accuse him of?" she asked, with a stamp of her foot.
"Listen to me," said Rupert gently, "it is the kinder thing that you should know the truth, and believe me, every word I say I can substantiate. This Captain Jack Smith, whatever his real name may be, was picked up when a mere boy by an old Liverpool merchant, starving in the streets of that town. This merchant, by name Cochrane, an absurd person who gave himself out to be a relative of Cochrane of Shaws, adopted the boy and started him upon a slaver, that is a ship which does trade in negro slaves, my dear—a pretty trade. He next entered a privateer's ship as lieutenant. You know what these are—ocean freebooters, tolerated by government for the sake of the harm they wreck upon the ships of whatever nation we may happen to be at war with—a sort of pirate ship—hardly a much more reputable business than the slaver's; but Captain Smith made himself a name in it. Now that the war is over, he has taken to a lower traffic still—that of smuggling."
"But what is smuggling?" cried the girl, tears brimming up at last into her pretty eyes, and all her heat of valiance suddenly gone. "What does it mean?"
"What is smuggling? Bless your innocence! I beg your pardon, my dear—miss I should say—but if you'll allow me I think I'm the man to explain that 'ere to you." The husky mellifluous tones of the preventive-service man, who had crept up unnoticed to listen to the conversation, here murmured insinuatingly in her ear.
Rupert hesitated; then reading shrinking aversion upon Madeleine's face, shrewdly conjectured that the exposition of her lover's doings might come with more force from Mr. Hobson's lips than from his own, and allowed the latter to proceed unmolested.
"Smuggling, my pretty," wheezed the genial representative of the custom laws, "again asking pardon, but it slipped out, smuggling is, so to say, a kind of stealing, a kind of cheating and that of a most rank and heinous kind. For, mind you, it ain't stealing from a common man, nor from the likes of you and me, nor from a nobleman either: it's cheating and stealing from his most gracious Majesty himself. For see you, how 'tis, his Majesty he says, 'Every keg of brandy,' says he, 'and every yard of lace and every pipe o' tobacco as is brought into this here country shall be paid for, so much on, to me, and that's called a tax, miss, and for that there are the custom houses and custom officers—which is me—to see his Majesty paid right and proper his lawful dues. But what does your smuggler do, miss—your rollicking, dare-devil chap of a smuggler? Why he lands his lace and his brandy and his 'baccy unbeknownst and sells 'em on the sly—and pockets the profit! D'ye see?—and so he cheats his Majesty, which is a very grievous breaking of the law; so much so that he might as well murder at once—Kind o' treason, you may say—and that's what makes 'em such desperate chaps. They knows if they're caught at it, with arms about them, and two or three together—it's—clank."
Mr. Hobson grasped his own bull neck with an unpleasantly significant gesture and winked knowingly at the girl, who turned white as death and remained gazing at him with a sort of horrified fascination which he presently noted with an indulgent smile.
"Don't take on now, my lass—no offence, miss—but I can't bear to see a fine young 'oman like you upset-like—I'm a damned, hem, hem, a real soft hearted fellow. Your sweetheart's heels have saved his gullet this time—and though he did crack poor Nat upon the skull (as I can testify for I as good as saw him do it—which makes it a hanging matter twice over I won't deny), yet there's a good few such as him escapes the law and settles down arter, quite respectable-like. A bit o' smuggling now is a thing many a pretty fellow has taken to in his day, and has made a pretty penny out of too, and is none the worse looked to arter, as I said. Aye, and there's many a gentleman and a magistrate to boot as drinks his glass of smuggled brandy and smokes his smuggled baccy and finds them none the worse, oh dear no! Human nature it is and human nature is a queer thing. Even the ladies, miss, are well-known to be soft upon the smuggled lace: it's twice as cheap you see as t'other, and they can get double as handsome for the money. Begging your pardon—if I may make so bold—" stretching out a great, coarse, tobacco-stained finger and thumb to close them appreciatively upon the hanging lace of Madeleine's neck handkerchief, "may be your spark brought you that there, miss, now? He, he, he—as pretty a bit of French point it is as has ever been my fate to lay hands on—Never fear," as the girl drew back with a gesture of loathing from the contact. "I ain't agoing to seize it off you or take you up, he—he—he—eh, Mr. Landale? I'm a man o' my duty, I hope, but our orders don't run as far as that."
"Rupert!" cried Madeleine, piteously turning a dark gaze of anguish at him—it seemed as if she were going to faint.
He hastened up to her, shouldering the clumsy form of Mr. Augustus Hobson unceremoniously out of the way: the fellow had done his work for the time being, and this last piece of it so efficaciously indeed that his present employer felt, if not remorse, at least a certain pity stir within him at the stricken hopelessness of the girl's aspect. He passed his arm round her waist as she shivered and swayed. "Lean on me," he said, his fine eyes troubled with an unwonted softness and anxiety.
"Rupert," she whispered, clutching at his sleeve, eagerly fixing him with a look eloquent of unconscious pleading, "all these things this—this man talks of are things which are brought into England—are they not? I know that—he was bringing nothing into the country, but he was going to another country upon some important trust, the nature of which he had promised not to reveal. Therefore he cannot be cheating the King, if that is smuggling—Oh Rupert, is there not some grievous mistake?"
"My poor child," said Rupert, holding her close and tenderly, and speaking with a gentle gravity in which there was this time less hypocrisy, "there is one thing which is smuggled out of England, and it is as dishonest and illegal work as the other, the most daring and dangerous smuggling of all in fact; one in which none but a desperate man would engage—that of gold."
"Yes, gold," exclaimed the girl sharply, withdrawing herself from her cousin's arms, while a ray of intelligence and hope lit up her face. "Gold for the French King's service."
Rupert betrayed no emotion; he drew from the inner pocket of his coat a crushed news-sheet.
"Deceived there, as well as everywhere else, poor little cousin," he said. "And did the scoundrel say so? Nay, he is a damnable scoundrel who could betray your trustfulness to your own sweet face. Gold indeed—but not for the King—gold for the usurper, for the tyrant who was supplied already, no doubt, by the same or similar traitor hands with enough to enable him to escape from the island where he was so justly imprisoned. See here, Madeleine, Bonaparte is actually landed in France: it has all been managed with the most devilish ingenuity and takes the whole world by surprise. And your lover, doubtless, is engaged upon bringing him fresh supplies to enable him to begin again and rack humanity with hideous wars. Oh, he never told you of the Corsican's escape, yet this news is three days old. See you, my dear, this explains the whole mystery, the necessity for absolute secrecy; all England is friendly to the French monarch; no need to smuggle gold for his aid—but the other...! It is treason, the blackest treason on every side of it, treason to his King, to his country, to your King, to you. And he would have cozened you with tales of his loyalty to the rightful cause!"
"Give me the paper," said Madeleine. A tide of blood had swept into her face; she was no longer white and shaken, but erect and beautiful in strong indignation. Rupert examined her, as if a little doubtful how to take the sudden change; but he handed her the printed sheet in silence. She read with lips and nostrils expanded by her quick breathing; then crumpled up the sheet and cast it at his feet. And after a pause, with her princess air of dignity, "I thank you, cousin Rupert," she said; then, passing him with stately steps, moved towards the house.
He pressed forward to keep up with her; and upon the other side, smiling, irrepressible, jocose, Mr. Hobson did the same.
"You are not fit to go alone," urged the former, while the latter engagingly protruding an elbow, announced that he'd be proud to give her an arm as far as the Hall.
She drew away from this well-meaning squire of dames with such shuddering distaste, and looked once more so white and worn and sickened after her sudden blaze of passion, that Mr. Landale, seeing that the only kindness was to let her have her will, arrested his companion roughly enough, and allowed her to proceed as she wished.
* * * * *
And so, with bent head, Madeleine hurried forth. And the same glorious sun smiled down upon her in her anguish that had greeted her when she hastened an hour before glowing and light-hearted—if, indeed, a heart so full of love could be termed light—to meet her lover; the same brambles caught her dress, the same bird trilled his song. But Madeleine thought neither of ray nor leaf, nor yet of mating songsters: all the spring world, as she went, was to her strewn with the wreck of her broken hopes, and encompassed by the darkness of her lonely future.
* * * * *
Mr. Landale and the preventive service man stood some time watching her retreating figure through the wood, and then walked slowly on for a while, in silent company.
Presently the latter, who during the last part of the interview, had begun to feel a little ruffled by the magistrate's persistently overbearing manner, inquired with something of dudgeon in his voice: "Begging your pardon, sir, what was that I heard the young lady call out just now? 'Gold!' she cries. Is it guineas that nipping young man is a taking over seas, if I may make so bold? Now you see, sir, we haven't had no orders about no gold on this station—that sort of thing is mostly done down south. But what I wants to know is: Why, if you knew all about the fellow's little games, you sent us to spy on him? Ah, poor Nat would want a word or two with you on that score, I fancy! Now it's as plain as Salisbury...."
"But I know nothing certain," impatiently interrupted Mr. Landale. "I know no more than you do yourself. Only not being a perfect idiot, I can put two and two together. What in the name of goodness can a man smuggle out of England but gold? But I wanted the proofs. And your business, it was agreed with the Chief Officer, was to follow my instructions."
"And so we did," grumbled Mr. Hobson; "and a pretty business it's turned out! Nat's to pocket his bludgeoning, I suppose, and I am to bear the blame and lose my share. A cargo of guineas, by God! I might have nosed it, down south, but here.... Blast it! But since you was so clever over it, sir, why in blazes—if I may speak so to a gentleman and a magistrate," pursued the man with a rueful explosion of disgust, "didn't you give me the hint? Why, guineas is contraband of war—it's treason, sir—and guineas is a cargo that's fought for, sir! I shouldn't have moved with two men in a boat patrol, d'ye think? I should have had the riding officers, and the water-guard, and a revenue cruiser in the offing, and all tight and regular. But you would have all the credit, and where are you? and where's my share? and where is Nat?—Bah!"
"You are forgetting yourself, officer," said Mr. Landale, looking severely into the eyes of the disappointed preventive man, whose rising ebullition became on the instant reduced.
"So I am, sir, so I am—and beg your pardon. But you must admit, it's almost enough to make ... but never mind, sir, the trick is done. Whatever it may be that that there schooner carries in her bottom, she is free now to take it, barring accident, wherever she pleases. I'll trouble you to look this way, sir."
They had emerged from the wooded part of the park, and the rising ground on which they stood commanded a wide sea-view, west of the great bay.
"There she is again, sir," said Mr. Hobson, waving his broad paw, like a showman displaying his goods, with a sort of enraged self-satisfaction. "There is the schooner, ready to hoist sail as soon as he comes alongside. And that there black point which you may see, if your eyes are good enough, is a six-oared galley with as ship-shaped a crew—if it's the same as I saw making off this morning—as ever pulled. Your Captain Smith, you may take your oath, is at the tiller, and making fun of us two to the lads. In five minutes he will be on board, and then the revenue cutter from the station may give chase if she likes!... And there she is, due to the time—about a mile astern. But bless you, that's all my eye, you may take your oath! They know well enough that in an open sea they can't run down a Salcombe schooner. But to earn their pay they will hang on till they lose her, and then sail home, all cosy.—I'm thinking," he added slily, with a side glance at the magistrate: "we won't hang him this time."
Mr. Landale made no answer; during the last few minutes his reflections had enabled him to take a new view of the situation. After all the future fate of Captain Jack was of little moment. He had been successfully exposed before Madeleine, whose love for the young man was, as had just been sufficiently proved, chiefly composed of those youthful illusions which dispelled once, never can return.
Rupert fell gradually into a reverie in which he found curious satisfaction. His work had not been unsuccessful, whatever Mr. Hobson's opinion might be. But, as matters stood between Madeleine and her lover, the girl's eyes had been opened in time, and that without scandal.... And even the escape of Captain Jack was, upon reflection, the best thing that could have happened.
And so it was with a return to his usual polite bearing, that he listened to the officer's relapse into expostulation.
"Now if you had only given me the hint first of all," the man was grumblingly saying, "and then let me act—for who would have suspected a boat, yacht-rigged like that?—A friend of Sir Adrian's, too! If you'd only left it to me! Why that six-oared galley alone is agin the law unless you can prove good reason for it ... as for the vessel herself...."
"Yes, my dear Mr. Hobson," interrupted Mr. Landale, smiling propitiously. "I have no doubt you would have secured him. I have made a mess of it. But now you understand, least said, soonest mended, both for me and (between ourselves, Mr. Hobson) for the young lady."
The man, in surprise at this sudden alteration of manner, stopped short and gaped; and presently a broad smile, combined with a knowing wink, appeared on his face. He received the guineas that Mr. Landale dropped in his palm with an air of great candour, and, without further parley, acted on the kind advice to repair to the Priory and talk with one Mrs. Puckett the housekeeper, on the subject of corporeal refreshment.
* * * * *
"Well," said Molly, bursting in upon her sister, who sat by her writing-table, pen in hand, and did not even raise her head at the unceremonious entrance. "This is evidently the day for mysterious disappearances. First Rupert and Sophia; then my lord and master who is fetched hurriedly to his island (that isle of misfortune!) God knows for what—though I mean to know presently; then you, Mademoiselle, and Rupert again. It is, faith, quite a comedy. But the result has been that I have had my meals alone, which is not so gay. Sophia is in bed, it turns out; Rupert out a-riding, on important business, of course! all he does is desperately important. And there you are—alone in your room, moping. God, child, how pale you are! What ails you then?"
"Molly," cried Madeleine, ignoring Lady Landale's question and feverishly folding the written sheet which lay under her hand, "if you love me, if ever you loved me, will you have this letter conveyed by a safe messenger to Scarthey, and given to Rene—to none but Rene, at once? Oh, Molly, it will be a service to me, you little guess of what moment!"
"Voyez un peu!" said Lady Landale coolly. "What trust in Molly, all at once! Aha, I thought it would come. If I love you? Hum, I'm not so sure about that. If ever I loved you?—a droll sort of plea, in truth, considering how you have requited my love!"
Madeleine turned a dazed look upon her sister, who stood surveying her, glowing like a jewel of dazzling radiance, from her setting of black mantle and black plumed hat. "So you will not!" she answered hopelessly, and let her forehead fall upon her hand without further protest.
"But I did not say I would not—as it happens I am going to the island myself. How you stare—oh you remember now do you? Who told you I wonder?—of course, such a couple as we are, Adrian and I, could not be divided from each other for over half a day, could we? By the way, I was to convey a gracious invitation to you too. Will you come with me?—No?—strange girl. So even give me the letter, I will take it to—no, not to Rene, 'tis addressed to Captain Smith, I see. Dear me—you don't mean to say, Madeleine, that you are corresponding with that person; that he is near us? What would Tanty say?"
"Oh, Molly, cease your scoffs," implored poor Madeleine, wearily. "You are angry with me, well, now rejoice, for I am punished—well punished. Oh, I would tell you all but I cannot! my heart is too sick. See, you may read the letter, and then you will understand—but for pity's sake go—Do not fail to go; he will be there on the island at dark—he expects me—Oh, Molly! I cannot explain—indeed I cannot, and there is no time, it will soon be dusk; but there is terrible danger in his being there at all."
Molly took the letter, turned it over with scornful fingers and then popped it in her pocket. "If he expects you," she asked, fixing cold, curious eyes on her sister's distress, "and he is in danger, why don't you go?"
A flush rose painfully to Madeleine's face, a sob to her throat. "Don't ask me," she murmured, turning away to hide her humiliation. "I have been deceived, he is not what I thought."
Lady Landale gazed at the shrinking figure for a little while in silence. Then remarking contemptuously: "Well you are a poor creature," turned upon her heel to leave her. As she passed the little altar, she paused to whisk a bunch of violets out of a vase and dry the stems upon her sister's quilt.
"Molly," cried Madeleine, in a frenzy, "give me back my letter, or go."
"I go, I go," said Lady Landale with a mocking laugh. "How sweet your violets smell!—There, do not agitate yourself: I'm going to meet your lover, my dear. I vow I am curious to see the famous man, at last."
So the blood burned within her, And thus it cried to her: And there, beside the maize field The other one was waiting— He, the mysterious one.
The mantle of night had already fallen upon the land when Lady Landale, closely wrapped in her warmest furs, with face well ensconced under her close bonnet, and arms buried to the elbow in her muff, sallied from her room on the announcement that the carriage was waiting. As, with her leisurely daintiness, she tripped it down the stairs, she crossed Mr. Landale, and paused a moment, ready for the skirmish, as she noticed the cynical curiosity with which he examined her.
"Whither, my fair sister," said he, ranging himself with his best courtesy against the bannisters, "so late in the day?"
"To my lord and master's side, of course," said Molly.
"Why—is not Adrian coming back to-night?"
"Apparently not, since he has graciously permitted me to join him upon his rock. I trust you will not find it too unhappy in our absence: that would be the crowning misfortune of a day when everything seems to have gone wrong. Sophia invisible with her vapours; Madeleine with the megrim; and you in and out of the house as excited and secret as the cat when she has licked all the cream. I suppose I shall end by knowing what it is all about. Meanwhile I think I shall enjoy the tranquillity of the island—although I have actually to tear myself away from the prospect of a tete-a-tete evening with you."
But as Rupert's serenity was not to be moved, her ladyship hereupon allowed herself to be escorted to the carriage without further parley.
As she drove away through the dark night, first down the level, well-metalled avenue, then along the uneven country road, and finally through the sand of the beach in which hoofs and tyres sank noiselessly, inches deep, Molly gave herself up, with almost childish zest to the leaven of imagination.... Here, in this dark carriage, was reclining, not Lady Landale (whose fate deed had already been signed, sealed and delivered to bring her nothing but disappointment), but her happier sister, still confronted with the fascinating unknown, hurrying under cover of night, within sound of the sea, to that enthralling lure, a lover—a real lover, ardent, daring, young, ready to risk all, waiting to spread the wings of his boat, and carry her to the undiscovered country.
Glowing were these fleeting images of the "might have been," angry the sudden relapses into the prose of reality.
No, Madeleine, the coward, who thought she had loved her lover, was now in her room, weak and weeping, whilst he, no doubt, paced the deck in mad impatience (as a lover should), now tortured by the throes of anxiety, now hugging himself with the thought of his coming bliss ... that bliss that never was to be his. And in the carriage there was only Molly, the strong-hearted but the fettered by tie and vow, the slave for ever of a first girlish fancy but too successfully compassed; only Lady Landale rejoining her husband in his melancholy solitude; Lady Landale who never—never! awful word! would know the joys which yonder poor fool had had within her grasp and yet had not clutched at.
Molly had read, as permitted, her sister's letter, and to some purpose; and scorn of the girl who from some paltry quibble could abandon in danger the man she professed to love, filled her soul to the exclusion of any sisterly or ever womanly pity.
At the end of half an hour the carriage was stopped by the black shadow of a man, who seemed to spring up from the earth, and who, after a few rapid words interchanged with the coachman, extinguished both the lights, and then opened the door.
Leaning on the offered elbow Molly jumped down upon the yielding sand.
"Rene?" she asked; for the darkness even on the open beach was too thick to allow of recognition.
"Rene, your ladyship—or Mademoiselle is it?" answered the man in his unmistakable accent. "I must ask; for, by the voice no one can tell, as your ladyship, or Mademoiselle knows—and the sky is black like a chimney."
"Lady Landale, Rene," and as he paused, she added, "My sister would not come."
"Ah, mon Dieu! She would not come," repeated the man in tones of dismay; and the black shadow was struck into a moment of stillness. Then with an audible sigh Mr. Potter roused himself, and saying with melancholy resignation, "The boat is there, I shall be of return in a minute, My Lady," took the traveller's bag on his shoulder and disappeared.
The carriage began to crunch its way back in the darkness and Molly was left alone.
* * * * *
In front of her was a faint white line, where the rollers spread their foam with mournful restless fugue of long drawn roar and hissing sigh.
In the distance, now and then glancing on the crest of the dancing billows, shone the steady light of Scarthey. The rising wind whistled in the prickly star-grass and sea-holly. Beyond these, not a sight, not a sound—the earth was all mystery.
Molly looked at the light—marking the calm spot where her husband waited for her; its very calm, its familiar placidity, monotony, enraged her; she hearkened to the splashing, living waves, to the swift flying gusts of the storm wind, and her soul yearned to their life, and their mysteriousness.
What she longed for, she herself could not tell. No words can encompass the desire of pent-up young vitality for the unknown, for the ideal, for the impossible. But one thing was overpoweringly real: that was the dread of leaving just then the wide, the open world whose darkness was filled to her with living scenes of freedom and space, and blood-stirring emotions; of re-entering the silent room under the light; of consorting with the shadowy personality, her husband; of feeling the web of his melancholy, his dreaminess, imprison as it were the wings of her imagination and the thoughtful kindness of his gaze, paralyse the course of her hot blood through her veins.
And yet, thither she was going, must be going! Ah Madeleine, fool—you may well weep, yonder on your pillow, for the happiness that was yours and that you have dropped from your feeble hands!
* * * * *
In a few minutes the black shadow re-appeared close to her.
"If My Lady will lean on my shoulder, I shall lead her to the boat." And after a few steps, the voice out of the darkness proceeded in explanation: "I have not taken a lantern, I have put out those of the carriage, for I must tell My Lady, that since what arrived this morning, there may be gabelous—they call them the preventive here—in every corner, and the light might bring them, as it does the night papilions, and ... as I thought Mademoiselle was to accompany you—they might have frightened her. These people want to know so much!"
"I know nothing of what has happened this morning, that you speak of as if the whole world must know," retorted Lady Landale coolly. "You are all hatching plots and sitting on secrets, but nobody confides in me. It seems then, that you expected Mademoiselle, my sister, here for some purpose and that you regret she did not come; may I ask for an explanation?"
A few moments elapsed before the man replied, and then it was with embarrassment and diffidence: "For sure, I am sorry, My Lady ... there have been misfortunes on the island this morning—nothing though to concern her ladyship—and, as for Mademoiselle, mother Margery would have liked to see her, no doubt ... and Maggie the wife also—and—and no doubt also Mademoiselle would have liked to come.... What do I know?"
"Oh, of course!" said Molly with her little note of mocking laughter.
Then again they walked a while in silence. As Rene lifted his mistress in his arms to carry her over the licking hissing foam, she resumed: "It is well, Rene, you are discreet, but I am not such a fool as people seem to think. As for her, you were right in thinking that she might easily be frightened. She was afraid even to come out!"
Rene shoved his boat off, and falling to his sculls, suddenly relapsed into the old vernacular: "Ah Madame," he sighed, "c'est bien triste—un gentilhomme si beau—si brave!"
During the crossing no further words passed between them.
"So brave—so handsome?" The echo of the words came back to the woman in every lap of the water on the sides of the boat, in every strain of the oars.
The keel ground against the beach, and Rene leaped out to drag the boat free of the surf. As he did so, two blacker outlines segregated themselves from the darkness and a rough voice called out, subdued but distinct: "Savenaye, St. Malo!"
"Savenaye, St. Malo!" repeated Rene, and helped Lady Landale to alight. Then one of the figures darted forward and whispered a rapid sentence in the Frenchman's ear. Rene uttered an exclamation, but his mistress intervened with scant patience:
"My good Rene," said she, "take the bag into the peel, and come back for me. I have a message for these gentlemen."
Rene hesitated. As he did so a rustle of anger shook the lady in her silks and furs. "Do you hear me?" she repeated, and he could guess how her little foot stamped the yielding sand.
"Oui, Madame," said he, hesitating no longer. Immediately the other two drew near. Molly could just see that they stood in all deference, cap in hand.
"Madam," began one of these in hurried words, "there is not a moment to be lost: the captain had to remain on board."
"What!" interrupted Lady Landale with much asperity, "not come in person!" She had been straining her eyes to make out something of her interlocutor's form, unable to reconcile her mind's picture with the coarse voice that addressed her—And now all her high expectations fell from her in an angry rush. "Have I come all this way to be met by a messenger! Who are you?"
"Madam," entreated the husky voice, "I am the mate of the Peregrine. The captain has directed me to beg and pray you not to be afraid, but to have good courage and confidence in us—the schooner is there; in five minutes you can be safe on board. You see, madam," continued the man with an earnestness that spoke well of his devotion, "the captain found he couldn't, he dared not leave the ship—he is the only one who knows the bearings of these waters here—any one of us might run her on the bank, and where would we be then, madam, and you, if we were found in daylight still in these parts?—'For God's sake, Curwen,' says he, 'implore the lady not to be afraid and tell her to trust, as she has promised,' so he says. And for God's sake, say I, madam, trust us. In five minutes you will be with him? Say the word, madam, am I to make the signal? There he is, eating his heart out. There are all the lads ready waiting for your foot on the ladder, to hoist sail. No time to lose, we are already behind. Shall I signal?"
Molly's heart beat violently; under the sudden impulse, the fascination of the black chasm, of the peril, the adventure, the unfathomed, took possession of her, and whirled her on.
"Yes," she said.
On the very utterance of the word the man, who had not yet spoken, uncovered a lantern, held it aloft, as rapidly replaced it under his coat, and moved away.
Almost immediately, against the black pall, behind the dim line of grey that marked the shore, suddenly sprang up three bright points in the form of a triangle.
It was as if all the darkness around had been filled with life; as if the first fulfilment of those promises with which it had been drawing this woman's soul was now held out to her to lure her further still.
"See, madam, how they watch!—By your leave."
And with no further warning, Molly felt herself seized with uncompromising, but deferential, energy, by a pair of powerful arms; lifted like a child, and carried away at a bear-like trot. By the splashing she judged it was through the first line of breakers. Then she was handed into another irresistible grasp. The boat lurched as the mate jumped in. Then:
"Now give way, lads," he said, "and let her have it. Those lights must not be burning longer than we can help. Tain't wholesome for any of us."
And under the pulse of four willing pairs of arms the skiff, like a thing of life, clove the black waters and rose to the billows.
"You see, madam," explained the mate, "we could not do without the lights, to show us where she lay, and give us a straight course. We are all right so long as we keep that top 'un in the middle—but he won't be sorry, I reckon, when he can drop them overboard. They can't be seen from the offing yet, but it's astounding how far a light will reach on a night like this. Cheerily, lads, let her have it!"
But Molly heeded him not. She had abandoned herself to the thrilling delight of the excitement. The die was cast—not by her own hand, no one should be able to hold her responsible—she had been kidnapped. Come what might she must now see the adventure out.
The lights grew larger; presently a black mass, surmounted by a kind of greyish cloud, loomed through the pitch of the night; and next it was evident that the beacon was hanging over the side of a ship, illuminating its jagged leaping water line.
A voice, not too loud, yet, even through the distance, ringing clear in its earnestness sounded from above. "Boat ahoy! what boat is that?"
And promptly the helmsman by Molly's side returned: "Savenaye, St. Malo."
On the instant the lights went out. There was a creaking of block and cordage, and new ghostly clouds rose over the ship—sails loosened to the wind. As the skiff rowers came alongside, boat-hooks leaped into action and gripped the vessel; an arm, strong as steel, was held out for the passenger as she fearlessly put her foot on the ladder; another, a moment later, with masterful tenderness bent round her waist, and she was fairly lifted on board the Peregrine. But before her foot touched the deck, she felt upon her lips, laid like a burning seal, a passionate kiss; and her soul leaped up to it, as if called into sudden life from slumber, like the princess of fairy lore. She heard Madeleine's mysterious lover whisper in her ear: "At last! Oh, what I have suffered, thinking you would not come!"
From the warm shelter of her loosened cloak the violets in her bosom sent forth a wave of sweetness.
For a moment these two were in all creation alone to each other, while in a circle the Peregrine's crew stood apart in respectful silence: a broad grin of sympathy upon the mouth of every mother's son.
Released at last, Lady Landale took a trembling step on the deck. Into what strange world had she come this night?
The schooner, like a mettled steed whose head is suddenly set free, was already in motion, and with gentle forward swaying leaps rising to the wave and gathering speed under her swelling sails.
Captain Jack had seized Molly's hand, and the strong clasp trembled round the little fingers; he said no more to her; but, in tones vibrating with emotion which all the men, now silently seeking their posts in the darkness, could hear:
"My lads," he cried, "the lady is safe with us after all. Who shall say that your skipper is not still Lucky Smith? Thank you, my good fellows! Now we have yet to bring her safe the other side. Meanwhile—no cheering, lads, you know why—there is a hundred guineas more among you the hour we make St. Malo. Stand to, every man. Up with those topsails!"
Scarcely had the last words been spoken when, from the offing, on the wings of the wind, came a long-drawn hail, faint through the distance, but yet fatally distinct: "Ahoy, what schooner is that?"
Molly, who had not withdrawn her hand, felt a shock pass over Captain Jack's frame. He turned abruptly, and she could see him lean and strain in the direction of the voice.
The call, after an interval, was repeated. But the outlook was impenetrable, and it was weird indeed to feel that they were seen yet could not see.
Molly, standing close by his side, knew in every fibre of her own body that this man, to whom she seemed in some inexplicable fashion already linked, was strongly moved. Nevertheless she could hardly guess the extremity of the passion that shook him. It was the frenzy of the rider who feels his horse about to fail him within a span of the winning post; of the leader whose men waver at the actual point of victory. But the weakness of dismay was only momentary. Calm and clearness of mind returned with the sense of emergency. He raised his night-glass, with a steady hand this time, and scanned the depth of blackness in front of him: out of it after a moment, there seemed to shape itself the dim outline of a sail, and he knew that he had waited too long and had fallen in again with the preventive cutter. Then glancing aloft, he understood how it was that the Peregrine had been recognised.
The overcast sky had partly cleared to windward during the last minutes; a few stars glinted where hitherto nothing but the most impenetrable pall had hung. In the east, the rays of a yet invisible moon, edging with faint silver the banks of clouds just above the horizon, had made for the schooner a tell-tale background indeed.
On board no sound was heard now save the struggle of rope and canvas, the creaking of timber and the swift plashing rush of water against her rounded sides as she sped her course.
"Madeleine," he said, forcibly controlling his voice, and bringing, as he spoke, his face close to Molly's to peer anxiously at its indistinct white oval, "we are not free yet; but in a short time, with God's help, we shall have left those intermeddling fools yonder who would bar our way, miles out of the running. But I cannot remain with you a moment longer; I must take the helm myself. Oh, forgive me for having brought you to this! And, should you hear firing, for Heaven's sake do not lose courage. See now, I will bring you to your cabin; there you will find warmth and shelter. And in a little while, a very little while, I will return to you to tell you all is well. Come, my dearest love."
Gently he would have drawn her towards the little deck-cabin, guiding her steps, as yet untutored to the motion of the ship, when out of the black chasm, upon the weather bow of the Peregrine, leaped forth a yellow tongue of light fringed with red and encircled by a ruddy cloud; and three seconds later the boom of a gun broke with a dull, ominous clangour above the wrangling of sea and wind. Molly straightened herself. "What is that?" she asked.
"The warning gun," he answered, hurriedly, "to say that they mean to see who we are and that if we do not stop the next will be shotted. Time presses, Madeleine, go in—fear nothing! We shall soon be on their other side, out of sight in darkness again."
"I shall stop with you. Let no thought of me hinder you. I am not afraid. I want to see."
At these words the lover was struck with a surprise that melted into a proud and new joy. He had loved Madeleine for her woman's grace and her woman's heart; now, he told himself, he must worship her also for her brave soul. But this was no time for useless words. It was not more unsafe for her on deck than in the cabin, and at the thought of her beside him during the coming struggle the strength of a god rose within him. "Come," he answered, briefly, and moved with her to the helm which a sailor silently surrendered to him whilst she steadied herself by holding to the binnacle—the only place on board at that time where (from sheer necessity) any light had been allowed to remain. It was faint enough, but the reflection from the compass-board, as he bent to examine it, was sufficient to make just visible, with a dim fantastic glow, the strong beauty of his face, and put a flash into each wide dilated eye.
And thus did Molly, for the first time, see Captain Jack.
She sank down at the foot of the binnacle, her hands clasped round her knees, as if hugging the new rapture as closely to her as she could. And looking up at the alert figure before her which she now began to discern more clearly under the lightening sky; at the face which she divined, although she could only see the watchful gleam of the eyes as now and again they sought her down in the shadow at his feet, she felt herself kindle in answer to the glow of his glorious life-energy. They were going, side by side, this young hero of romance and she, to fight their way through some unknown peril!
"Madeleine, my sweet bride, my brave love, they are about to fire again, and this time you will hear the shot burring; but be not afraid, it will strike ahead of us."
Another flash sprang out of the night, much nearer this time, and louder, for it belched forth a shot which ploughed its way in the water across the schooner's bow.
"I am not afraid," said Molly again; and she laughed a little fierce, nervous laugh.
"They are between us and the open sea. Thus far the luck is on their side. Had you come but half an hour sooner, Madeleine, we should be running as free as any king's ship. Now they think, no doubt, they will drive me on to the sand; but," he tossed back his head with a superb gesture; "there is no power from heaven or hell that can keep me out of my course to-night."
By this time the preventive cutter was faintly discernible two cables length on the larboard bow. There came another hail—a loud, husky bellow from over the water, "Schooner ahoy! Heave to, or we'll sink you!"
"Madeleine," said Captain Jack; "come closer to me, lie down, behind me, quick—The next shot will be in my rigging. Heave to?—with my treasures, my bride on board and a ten knot breeze...!" And he looked down at Molly, laughing in his contempt. Then he shouted some order which brought the Peregrine some points more off the wind, and she bounded forward with renewed zest. "Sink us! Why don't you fire now, you lubbers?" He glanced back over his shoulder to see the beacon of Scarthey straight over the stern. "You have got us in line with the light, and that's your last chance. In another minute I shall be past you. Ah, I can see you now, my fine fellows!—Courage, Madeleine."