To Molly, of course, his words conveyed no meaning, except that the critical moment had come, that the ship which carried her flying upon the water like a living thing, eager, yet obedient in all its motions to the guiding will of the man beside her, was rushing to the fray. The thought fired her soul, and she sprang up to look over the side.
"What," she exclaimed, for the little cutter on close quarters looked insignificant indeed by the side of the noble vessel that so scornfully bore down on her. "Is that all!"
"They have a gun, and we have none," answered Captain Jack. "Down, Madeleine! down behind, in the name of God!"
"Why should I crouch if you stand up?"
The man's heart swelled within him; but as he looked with proud admiration at the cloaked and hooded figure by his side, the cutter's gun fired for the third time. With roar and hiss the shot came over the bow of the schooner, as she dipped into the trough, and raking the deck, crashed through her side on the quarter. Molly gave a shriek and staggered.
A fearful malediction burst from Captain Jack's lips: he left the tiller and sprang to her.
One of the hands, believing his skipper to have been struck, ran to the helm, and again put the vessel on her proper course which a few moments later was to make her shoot past the revenue cutter.
"Wounded, Madeleine! Wounded through my fault! By the living God, they shall pay for this!"
"Oh," groaned Molly, "something has cut me in the arm and shoulder." Then rapidly gathering composure, "But it's not much, I can move it."
At one glance the sailor saw from the position of the shot hole in the vessel's side that the wound could only have been made by a splinter. But the possibility of exposing his beloved to such another risk was not to be borne—a murderous rush of blood flew to his brain.
The cutter, perceiving the tactics of the swifter schooner, was now tacking about with the intention of bringing the gun to bear upon her once more as she attempted to slip by. But Captain Jack in his new-fanned fury had made up his mind to a desperate cast of the die.
"Starboard, hard a starboard," he called out in a voice that his men had known well in old fighting days and which was heard as far as the cutter itself. "They shall not fire that gun again!"
With a brief, "Starboard it is, sir," the man who had taken the helm brought the ship round, and the silent, active crew in a trice were ready to go about. Majestically the schooner changed her course, and as the meaning of the manoeuvre became fearfully apparent, shouts and oaths arose in confusion from the cutter.
"What are you going to do?" eagerly asked Molly, enthralled by the superb motion of the vessel under her foot as it swept round and increased speed upon the new tack.
He held her in his arms. His hand had sought her wounded shoulder and pressed the lacerated spot in his effort to staunch the precious blood that rose warm through the cloth, torturing his cold fingers.
"I am going to clear those men from our way to freedom and to love! I am going to sink that boat: they shall pay with their lives for this! Come to the other side, Madeleine, and watch how my stout Peregrine sweeps our course—and then I may see how these scoundrels have mangled you, my love. But, nay, this is no sight for you. Hold on close to me, sweet, and hide your eyes while they go."
He steadied himself firmly with one hand on the rigging.
Now musket shots flashed on board the cutter in quick succession, and sundry balls whizzed over the poop, intended for the helmsman by their side. Captain Jack gnashed his teeth, as the menacing drone of one of them came perilously close to the beloved head by his cheek.
"Look out, every man. We'll run her down!" he called. His voice was like the blast of bugles. Cheers broke out from every part of the ship, drowning the yells of execration and the shouts of fear from below. And now, with irresistible sway, the rushing Peregrine heavy and powerful was closing and bearing down upon her frailer enemy.
There was a spell of suspense when all was silence, save the rush and turmoil of the waters, and the flapping of the cutter's sails, helpless for the moment in the teeth of the breeze. Like a charging steed the schooner seemed to leap at her foe. Then came the shock. There was a brief check in her career, she rose by the head; the rigging strained and sighed, the masts swayed groaning, but stood. Over the bows, in the darkness was heard a long-drawn crash, was seen a white wall of foaming water rising silently to break the next moment with a great roar.
The cutter, struck obliquely amidships, was thrown straightway on her beam ends: the Peregrine, with every sail spread and swollen, held her as the preying bird with outstretched wings holds its quarry, and pressed her down until she began to fill and settle. It was with wide-open eyes, with eager, throbbing heart that Molly watched it all.
"Lights, my lads," cried Captain Jack, with a shout of exultation, when the anxious instant had passed. "Take in every man you can save but handspike is the word for the first who shows fight! Curwen, do you get her clear again."
All around upon the deck, sprang rumour and turmoil, came shouts and sounds of scuffling and the rushing of feet; from the blank waters came piteous calls for help. But paying little heed to aught but Molly, Captain Jack seized a lighted lantern from the hands of a passing sailor and drew her aside.
Fevered with pain and fascinated by the horror of fight and death's doings, yet instinctively remembering to pull her hood over her face, she allowed herself to be taken into the little deck cabin.
He placed the lantern upon the table:
"Rest here," he said quickly, once more striving to see her beneath the jealous shade. "I must find out if anything is amiss on board the ship and attend to these drowning men—even before you, my darling! But I shall be back instantly. You are not faint?"
The light shone full on his features which Molly eagerly scanned from her safe recess. When she met his eyes, full of the triumph of love and hope, her soul broke into fierce revolt—again she felt upon her lips that kiss of young passionate love that had been the first her life had ever known ... and might be the last, for the disclosure was approaching apace.
She was glad of the respite.
"Go," she said with as much firmness as she could muster. "Let me not stand between you and your duty. I am strong."
Strong indeed—Captain Jack might have wondered whence had come to this gentle Madeleine this lioness-strength of soul and body, had he had time to wonder, time for aught but his love thoughts and his fury, as he dashed back again panting for the moment when he could have her to himself.
"Any damage, Curwen?"
"Bowsprit broken, and larboard bulwark stove in, otherwise everything has stood."
"No, sir. We have three of the cutter's men on board already. They swarmed over the bows. One had his cutlass out and had the devil's impudence to claim the schooner, but a boat-hook soon brought him to reason. There they be, sir," pointing to a darker group huddled round the mast. "I have lowered the gig to see if we can pick up the others, damn them!"
"As soon as they are all on board bring them aft, I will speak to them."
When, with a master's eye, he had rapidly inspected his vessel from the hold to the rigging, without finding aught to cause anxiety for its safety, Captain Jack returned to the poop, and there found the party of prisoners arranged under the strong guard of his own crew. Molly stood, wrapped up in her cloak, at the door of the cabin, watching.
One of the revenue men came forward and attempted to speak—but the captain impatiently cut him short.
"I have no time to waste in talk, my man," he said commandingly. "How many were you on board the cutter?"
"Nine," answered the man sullenly.
"How many have we got here?"
"Six, sir," interposed Curwen. "Those three," pointing to three disconsolate and dripping figures, "were all we could pick up."
"Hark ye, fellows," said the captain. "You barred my road, I had to clear you away. You tried to sink me, I had to sink you. You have lost three of your ship-mates, you have yourselves to blame for it; your shot has drawn blood from one for whom I would have cut down forty times your number. I will send you back to shore. Away with you! No, I will hear nothing. Let them have the gig, Curwen, and four oars."
"And now God speed the Peregrine," cried Jack Smith, as the revenue men pushed off in the direction of the light and the wind was again swelling every sail of his gallant ship. "We are well out of our scrape. Shape her course for St. Malo, Curwen. If this wind holds we should be there by the nineteenth in the morning, at latest."
THE FIGHT FOR THE OPEN
As o'er the grass, beneath the larches there We gaily stepped, the high noon overhead, Then Love was born—was born so strong and fair. Knowest thou! Love is dead.
At last he was free. He had wrested his bride and the treasure trusted to his honour from the snares so unexpectedly laid on his path; whatever troubles might remain stored against him in the dim distance of time, he would not reck them now. The present and the immediate future were full of splendour and triumph.
All those golden schemes worked out under yonder light of Scarthey—God bless it—now receding in the gloom behind his swift running ship, whether in the long watches of the night, or in the recent fevered resolves of imminent danger, they had come to pass after all! And she, the light of his life, was with him. She had trusted her happiness, her honour, herself, to his love. The thought illumined his brain with glory as he rushed back to the silent muffled figure that still stood awaiting his coming.
"At last!" he said, panting in the excess of his joy; "At last, Madeleine ... I can hardly believe it! But selfish brute that I am, you must be crushed with fatigue. My brave darling, you would make me forget your tender woman's frame, and you are wounded!"
Supporting her—for the ship, reaching the open sea, had begun to roll more wildly—he led her back into the little room now lighted by the fitful rays of a swinging lamp. With head averted, she suffered herself to be seated on a kind of sofa couch.
When he had closed the door, he seized her hand, on which ran streaks of half-dried blood, and covered it with kisses.
"Ah, Madeleine! here in the sanctuary I had prepared for you, where I thought you would be so safe, so guarded, tell me that you forgive me for having brought this injury to you. Wounded, torn, bleeding.... I who would give all my blood, my life, if life were not so precious to me now that you have come into it, to save you from the slightest pain! At least here you are secure, here you can rest, but—but there is no one to wait on you, Madeleine." He fell on his knees beside her. "Madeleine, my wife, you must let me tend you." Then, as she shivered slightly, but did not turn to him, he went on in tones of the most restrained tenderness mingled with humblest pleading:
"Had it not been for your accident, I had not ventured even to cross the threshold of this room. But your wound must be dressed; darling, darling, allow me, forgive me; the risk is too great."
Rising to his feet again he gently pulled at her cloak. Molly spoke not a word, but untied it at the neck and let it fall away from her fair young body; and keeping her hooded face still rigidly averted, she surrendered her wounded arm.
He muttered words of distress at the sight of the broad blood stains; stepped hurriedly to a little cupboard where such surgical stores as might be required on board were hoarded, and having selected scissors, lint, and bandages, came back and again knelt down by her side to cut off, with eager, compassionate hands, the torn and maculated sleeve.
The wound was but a surface laceration, and a man would not have given a thought to it in the circumstances. But to see this soft, white woman's skin, bruised black in parts, torn with a horrid red gap in others; to see the beauty of this round arm thus brutally marred, thus twitching with pain—it was monstrous, hideously unnatural in the lover's eyes!
With tenderness, but unflinchingly, he laved the mangled skin with cool, fresh water; pulled out, with far greater torture to himself than to her, some remaining splinters embedded in the flesh; covered the wound with lint, and finished the operation by a bandage as neat as his neat sailor's touch, coupled with some knowledge of surgery, gained in the experiences of his privateering days, could accomplish it. He spoke little: only a word of encouragement, of admiration for her fortitude now and then; and she spoke not at all during the ministration. She had raised her other hand to her eyes, with a gesture natural to one bracing herself to endurance, and had kept it there until, his task completed, her silence, the manner in which she hid her face from him awoke in him all that was best and loftiest in his generous heart.
As he rose to his feet and stood before her, he too dared not speak for fear of bruising what he deemed an exquisite maidenliness, before which his manhood was abashed at itself. For some moments there was no sound in the cabin save that of the swift rushing waters behind the wooden walls and of the labour and life of the ship under full sail; then he saw the tumultuous rising of her bosom, and thought she was weeping.
"Madeleine," he cried with passionate anxiety, "speak! Let me see your face—are you faint? Lie upon this couch. Let me get you wine—oh that these days were passed and I could call you wife and never leave you! Madeleine, my love, speak!"
Molly rose to her feet, and with a gesture of anger threw off her hood and turned round upon him. And there in the light of the lamp, he glared like one distraught at the raven locks, the burning eyes of a strange woman.
She was very pale.
"No," said Molly, defiantly, when twice or thrice his laboured breath had marked the passing of the horrible moment, "I am not Madeleine." Then she tried to smile; but unconsciously she was frightened, and the smile died unformed as she pursued at random:
"You know me—perhaps by hearsay—as I know you, Captain Smith."
But he, shivering under the coldness of his disappointment, answered in a kind of weary whisper:
"Who are you—you who speak with her voice, who stand at her height and move and walk as she does? I have seen you surely—Ah, I know.... Madam, what a cruel mockery! And she, where is she?"
Still staring at her with widely dilated eyes, he seized his forehead between his hands. The gesture was one of utter despair. Before this weakness Molly promptly resumed the superiority of self-possession.
"Yes," she said, and this time the smile came back to her face, "I am Lady Landale, and my sister Madeleine—I grieve to have to say so—has not had that courage for which you gave her credit to-night."
Little was required at a moment like this to transmute such thoughts as seethed in the man's head to a burst of fury. Fury is action, and action a relief to the strained heart. There was a half-concealed, unintended mockery in her tones which brought a sudden fire of anger to his eyes. He raised both hands and shook them fiercely above his head:
"But why—why in the name of heaven—has such a trick been played on me ... at such a time?"
He paused, and trembling with the effort, restrained himself to a more decent bearing before the woman, the lady, the friend's wife. His arms fell by his side, and he repeated in lower tones, though the flame of his gaze could not be subdued:
"Why this deception, this playing with the blindness of my love? Why this comedy, which has already had one act so tragic?—Yes, think of it, madam, think of the tragedy this is now in my life, since she is left behind and I never now, with these men's lives to account for, may go back and claim her who has given me her troth! Already I staked the fortune of my trust, on the bare chance that she would come. What though her heart failed her at the eleventh hour?—God forgive her for it!—surely she never sanctioned this masquerade?... Oh no! she would not stoop to such an act, and human life is not a thing to jest upon. She never played this trick, the thought is too odious. What have you done! Had I known, had I had word sooner—but half an hour sooner—those corpses now rolling under the wave with their sunken ship would still be live men and warm.... And I—I should not be the hopeless outlaw, the actual murderer that this night's work has made of me!"
His voice by degrees rose once more to the utmost ring of bitterness and anger. Molly, who had restored her cloak to her shoulders and sat down, ensconced in it as closely as her swaddled arm would allow her, contemplated him with a curious mixture of delight and terror; delight in his vigour, his beauty, above everything in his mastery and strength; and delight again at the new thrill of the fear it imposed upon her daring soul. Then she flared into rage at the thought of the coward of her blood who had broken faith with such a man as this, and she melted all into sympathy with his anger—A right proper man most cruelly used and most justifiably wrathful!
And she, being a woman whose face was at most times as a book on which to read the working of her soul, there was something in her look, as in silence she listened and gazed upon him, which struck him suddenly dumb. Such a look on a face so like, yet so unlike, that of his love was startling in the extreme—horrible.
He stepped back, and made as if he would have rushed from the room. Then bethinking himself that he was a madman, he drew a chair near her in a contrary mood, sat down, and fixed his eyes upon her very steadily.
She dropped her long lids, and demurely composed her features by some instinct that women have, rather than from any sense of the impression she had produced.
A little while they sat thus again in silence. In the silence, the rolling of the ship and the manner in which, as she raced on her way, she seemed to breathe and strain, worked in with the mood of each; in his, with the storm and stress of his soul; in hers, as the very expression of her new freedom and reckless pleasure.
Then he spoke; the strong emotion that had warmed her had now left his voice. It was cold and scornful.
"Madam, I await your explanation. So far, I find myself only the victim of a trick as unworthy and cruel as it is purposeless."
She had delayed carrying out her mission with the most definite perverseness. She could not but acknowledge the justice of his reproof, realise the sorry part she must play in his eyes, the inexcusable folly of the whole proceeding, and yet she was strung to a very lively indignation by the tone he had assumed, and suddenly saw herself in the light of a most disinterested and injured virtue.
"Captain Smith," she exclaimed, flashing a hot glance at him, "you assume strangely the right to be angry with me! Be angry if you will with things as they are; rail against fate if you will, but be grateful to me.—I have risked much to serve you."
The whole expression of his face changed abruptly to one of eager, almost entreating, inquiry.
"Do me the favour," she continued, "to look into the pocket of my cloak—my arm hurts me if I move—you will find there a letter addressed to you. I was adjured to see that it should reach you in safety. I promised to place it in your own hands. This could hardly have been done sooner, as you know."
The words all at once seemed to alter the whole situation. He sprang up and came to her quickly.
"Oh, forgive me, make allowances for me, Lady Landale, I am quite distracted!" There had returned a tinge of hope into his voice. "Where is it?" he eagerly asked, seeking, as directed, for the pocket. "Ah!" and mechanically repeating, "Forgive me!" he drew out the letter at last and retreated, feverishly opening it under the light of the lamp.
Molly had turned round to watch. Up to this she had felt no regret for his disillusion, only an irritable heat of temper that he should waste so much love upon so poor an object. But now all her heart went to him as she saw the sudden greyness that fell on his face from the reading of the very first line; there was no indignation, no blood-stirring emotion; it was as if a cold pall had fallen upon his generous spirit. The very room looked darker when the fire within the brave soul was thus all of a sudden extinguished.
He read on slowly, with a kind of dull obstinacy, and when he came to the miserable end continued looking at the paper for the moment. Then his hand fell; slowly the letter fluttered to the floor, and he let his eyes rest unseeingly, wonderingly upon the messenger.
After a little while words broke from him, toneless, the mere echo of dazed thoughts: "It is over, all over. She has lost her trust. She does not love me any more."
He picked up the letter again, and sitting down placed it in front of him on the table. "'Tis a cruel letter, madam, that you have brought me," he said then, looking up at Molly with the most extraordinary pain in his eyes. "A cruel letter! Yet I am the same man now that I was this morning when she swore she would trust me to the end—and she could not trust me a few hours longer! Why did you not speak? One word from you as you stepped upon the ship would have saved my soul from the guilt of these men's death!" Then with a sharper uplifting of his voice, as a new aspect of his misfortune struck him: "And you—you, too! What have I to do with you, Adrian's wife? He does not know?"
She did not reply, and he cried out, clapping his hands together:
"It only wanted this. My God, it is I—I, his friend, who owes him so much, who am to cause him such fear, such misery! Do you know, madam, that it is impossible that I should restore you to him for days yet. And then when, and where, and how? God knows! Nothing must now come between me and my trust. I have already dishonourably endangered it. To attempt to return with you to-night, as perhaps you fancy I will—as, of course, I would instantly do had I alone myself and you to consider, would be little short of madness. It would mean utter ruin to many whom I have pledged myself to serve. And yet Adrian—my honour pulls me two ways—poor Adrian! What dumb devil possessed you that you did not speak before. Had you no thought for your woman's good name? Ill-fated venture, ill-fated venture, indeed! Would God that shot had met me in its way—had only my task been accomplished!"
He buried his head in his hands.
Lady Landale flushed and paled alternately, parted her lips to speak, and closed them once more. What could she say, and how excuse herself? She did not repent what she had done, though it had been sin all round; she had little reck of her woman's good name, as he called it; the death of the excise men weighed but lightly, if at all, upon her conscience; the thought of Adrian was only then a distasteful memory to be thrust away; nay—even this man's grief could not temper the wild joy that was in her soul to-night. Fevered with fatigue, with excitement, by her wound, her blood ran burning in her veins, and beat faster in every pulse.
And as she felt the ship rise and fall, and knew that each motion was an onward leap that separated her further and ever further from dull home and dull husband, and isolated her ever more completely with her sister's lover, she exulted in her heart.
Presently he lifted his head.
"Forgive me," he said, "I believe that you meant most kindly, and as you say, I should be grateful. Your service is ill-requited by my reproaches, and you have run risk indeed—merciful Heaven, had my old friend's wife been killed upon my ship through my doings! But you see I cannot command myself; you see how I am situated. You must forgive me. All that can be done to restore you to your home as soon as possible shall be done, and all, meanwhile, to mitigate the discomfort you must suffer here—And for your good intention to her and me, I thank you."
He had risen, and now bowed with a dignity that sat on his sailor freedom in no wise awkwardly. She, too, with an effort, stood up as if to arrest his imminent departure. A tall woman, and he but of average height, their eyes were nearly on a level. For a second or two her dark gaze sought his with a strange hesitation, and then, as if the truth in him awoke all the truth in her, the natural daring of her spirit rose proudly to meet this kindred soul. She would let no falsehood, no craven feminine subterfuge intervene between them.
"Do not thank me," she exclaimed, glowing with a brilliant scorn in which the greatness of her beauty, all worn as she was, struck him into surprise, yet evoked no spark of admiration. "What I did I did, to gratify myself. Oh, aye, if I were as other women I should smile and take your compliments, and pose as the martyr and as the self-sacrificing devoted sister. But I will not. It was nothing to me how Madeleine got in or out of her love scrapes. I would not have gone one step to help her break her promise to you, or even to save your life, but that it pleased me so to do. Madeleine has never chosen to make me her confidant. I would have let her manage her own affairs gaily, had I had better things to occupy my mind—but I had not, Captain Smith. Life at Pulwick is monotonous. I have roaming blood in my veins: the adventure tempted, amused me, fascinated me—and there you have the truth! Of course I could have given the letter to the men and sent them back to you with it—it was not because of my promise that I did not do it. Of course I could have spoken the instant I got on board, perhaps——" here a flood of colour dyed her face with a gorgeous conscious crimson, and a dimple faintly came and went at the corner of her mouth, "perhaps I would have spoken. But then, you must remember, you closed my lips!"
"My God!" said Captain Jack, and looked at her with a sort of horror.
But this she could not see for her eyes were downcast. "And now that I have come," she went on, and would have added, "I am glad I did," but that all of a sudden a new bashfulness came upon her, and she stammered instead, incoherently: "As for Adrian—Rene knew I had a message for you, and Rene will tell him—he is not stupid—you know—Rene, I mean."
"I am glad," answered the man gravely, after a pause, "if you have reasonable grounds for believing that your husband knows you to be on my ship. He will then be the less anxious at your disappearance: for he knows too, madam, that his wife will be as honoured and as guarded in my charge as she would be in her mother's house."
He bowed again in a stately way and then immediately left her.
Molly sank back upon her couch, and she could not have said why, burst into tears. She felt cold now, and broken, and her stiffening wound pained her. But nevertheless, as she lay upon the little velvet pillow, and wept her rare tears were strangling sobs, the very ache of her wound had a strange savour that she would not have exchanged for any past content.
* * * * *
Rene, having obeyed his mistress's orders, and left her alone with the sailors on the beach, withdrew within the shelter of the door, but remained waiting, near enough to be at hand in case he should be called.
It was still pitch dark and the rollers growled under a rough wind; he could catch the sound of a man's voice, now and again, between the clamour of the sea and the wuthering of the air, but could not distinguish a word. Presently, however, this ceased, and there came to him the unmistakable regular beat of oars retreating. The interview was over, and breathing a sigh of relief at the thought that, at last, his master's friend would soon be setting on his way to safety, the servant emerged to seek her ladyship.
A few minutes later he dashed into Sir Adrian's room with a livid face, and poured forth a confused tale:
Milady had landed without Mademoiselle; had stopped to speak to two of the Peregrine, whilst he waited apart. The men had departed in their boat.
"The Peregrine men! But the ship has been out of sight these eight hours!" ejaculated Sir Adrian, bewildered. Then, catching fear from his servant's distraught countenance:
"My wife," he exclaimed, bounding up; and added, "you left her, Renny?"
The man struck his breast: he had searched and called.... My Lady was nowhere to be found. "As God is my witness," he repeated, "I was within call. My Lady ordered me to leave her. Your honour knows My Lady has to be obeyed."
"Get lanterns!" said Sir Adrian, the anguish of a greater dread driving the blood to his heart. Even to one who knew the ground well, the isle of Scarthey, on a black, stormy night, with the tide high, was no safe wandering ground. For a moment, the two—comrades of so many miserable hours—faced each other with white and haggard faces. Then with the same deadly fear in their hearts, they hurried out into the soughing wind, down to the beach, baited on all sides by the swift-darting hissing surf. Running their lanterns close to the ground, they soon found, by the trampled marks upon the sand, where the conclave had been held. From thence a double row of heavy footprints led to the shelving bit of beach where it was the custom for boats to land from seawards.
"See, your honour, see," cried Rene, in deepest agitation, "the print of this little shoe, here—and there, and here again, right down to the water's edge. Thank God—thank God! My Lady has had no accident. She has gone with the sailors to the boat. Ah! here the tide has come—we can see no farther."
"But why should she have gone with them?" came, after a moment, Sir Adrian's voice out of the darkness. "Surely that is strange—and yet ... Yes, that is indeed her foot-print in the sand."
"And if your honour will look to sea, he will perceive the ship's lights yonder, upon the water. That is the captain's ship.... Your honour, I must avow to you that I have concealed something from you—it was wrong, indeed, and now I am punished—but that poor Monsieur the Captain, I was so sorry for him, and he so enamoured. He had made a plan to lift off Mademoiselle Madeleine with him to-night, marry her in France; and that was why he came back again, at the risk of his life. He supplicated me not to tell you, for fear you would wish to prevent it, or think it your duty to. Mademoiselle had promised, it seemed, and he was mad with her joy, the poor gentleman! and as sure of her faith as if she had been a saint in Heaven. But My Lady came alone, your honour, as I said. The courage had failed to Mademoiselle, I suppose, at the last moment, and Madame bore a message to the captain. But the captain was not able to leave his ship, it seems; and, my faith," cried Mr. Potter; his spirits rising, as the first ghastly dread left him, "the mystery explains itself! It is quite simple, your honour will see. As the captain did not come to the island, according to his promise to Mademoiselle—he had good reasons, no doubt—Madame went herself to his ship with her message. She had the spirit for it—Ah! if Mademoiselle had had but a little of it to-night, we should not be where we are!"
Sir Adrian caught at the suggestion out of the depths of his despair. "You are right, Renny, you must be right. Yet, on this rough sea, in this black night—what madness! The boat, instantly; and let us row for those lights as we never rowed before!"
Even as the words were uttered the treble glimmer vanished. In vain they strained their eyes: save for the luminous streak cast by their own beacon lamp, the gloom was unbroken.
"His honour will see, a boat will be landing instantly with My Lady safe and sound," said Rene at last. But his voice lacked confidence, and Sir Adrian groaned aloud.
And so they stood alone in silence, forced into inaction, that most cruel addition to suspense, by the darkness and the waters which hemmed them in upon every side. The vision of twenty dangerous places where one impetuous footfall might have hurled his darling into the cruel beating waves painted themselves—a hideous phantasmagory—upon Sir Adrian's brain. Had the merciless waters of the earth that had murdered the mother, grasped at the child's life also? He raised his voice in a wild cry, it seemed as if the wind caught it from him and tore it into shreds.
"Hark!" whispered Rene, and clasped his master's icy hand. Like an echo of Sir Adrian's cry, the far-off ring of a human voice had risen from the sea.
Again it came.
"C'est de la mer, Monseigneur!" panted the man; even as he spoke the darkness began to lift. Above their heads, unnoticed, the clouds had been rifted apart beneath the breath of the north wind; the horizon widened, a misty wing-like shape was suddenly visible against the receding gloom.
The captain's ship! The Peregrine!
As master and man peered outward as if awaiting unconsciously some imminent solution from the gliding spectre, it seemed as if the night suddenly opened on the left to shoot forth a burst of red fire. A few seconds later, the hollow boom of cannon shook the air around them. Sir Adrian's nails were driven into Rene's hands.
The flaming messenger had carried to both minds an instant knowledge of the new danger.
"Great Heavens!" muttered Adrian. "He will surrender; he must surrender! He could not be so base, so wicked, as to fight and endanger her!"
But the servant's keener sight, trained by long stormy nights of watching, was following in its dwindling, mysterious course that misty vision in which he thought to recognize the Peregrine.
"Elle file, elle file joliment la goelette! Mother of Heaven, there goes the gun again! I never thought my blood would turn to water only to hear the sound of one like this. But your honour must not be discouraged; he can surely trust the captain. Ah, the clouds—I can see no more."
The wild blast gathering fresh droves of vapour from the huddled masses on the horizon was now, in truth, herding them fiercely across the spaces it had cleared a few moments before. Confused shouts, strange clamour seemed to ring out across the waves to the listeners: or it might have been only the triumphant howlings of the rising storm.
"Will not your honour come in? The rain is falling."
"No, Renny, no, give me my lantern again, friend, and let us examine anew."
Both knew it to be of no avail, but physically and mentally to move about was, at least, better than to stand still. Step by step they scanned afresh the sand, the shingle, the rocks, the walls, to return once more to the trace of the slender feet, leading beside the great double track of heavy sea boots to the water's edge.
Sir Adrian knelt down and gazed at the last little imprint that seemed to mock him with the same elusive daintiness as Molly herself, as if he could draw from it the answer to the riddle.
Rene endeavouring to stand between his master and the driving blast laid down his lantern too, and strove by thumping his breast vigorously to infuse a little warmth into his numbed limbs and at the same time to relieve his overcharged feelings.
As he paused at length, out of breath, the noise of a methodical thud and splash of oars arose, above the tumult of the elements, very near to them, upon their left.
Sir Adrian sprang to his feet.
"She returns, she returns," shouted Rene, capering, in the excess of the sudden joy, and waving his lantern; then he sent forth a vigorous hail which was instantly answered close by the shore.
"Hold up your light, your honour—ah, your honour, did I not say it?—while I go to help Madame. Now then, you others down there," running to the landing spot, "make for the light!"
The keel ground upon the shingle.
"My Lady first," shouted Rene.
Some one leaped up in the boat and flung him a rope with a curse.
"The lady, ay, ay, my lad, you'd better go and catch her yourself. There she goes," pointing enigmatically behind him with his thumb.
Sir Adrian, unable to restrain his impatience, ran forward too, and threw the light of his lantern upon the dark figures now rising one by one and pressing forward. Five or six men, drenched from head to foot, swearing and grumbling; with faces pinched with cold, all lowering with the same expression of anger and resentment and shining whitely at him out of the confusion. He saw the emptying seats, the shipped oars, the name Peregrine in black letters upon the white paint of the dingey; and she?... she was not there!
The revulsion of feeling was so cruel that for a while he seemed turned to stone, even his mind becoming blank. The waves lashed in up to his knees; he never felt them.
Rene's strong hands came at last to drag him away, and then Rene's voice, in a hot whisper close to his ear, aroused him:
"It is good news, your honour, after all, good news. My Lady is on board the Peregrine. I made these men speak. They are the revenue men—that God may damn them! and they were after the captain; but he ran down their cutter, that brave captain. And these are all that were saved from her, for she sank like a stone. The Peregrine is as sound as a bell, they say—ah, she is a good ship! And the captain, out of his kind heart, sent these villains ashore in his own boat, instead of braining them or throwing them overboard. But they saw a lady beside him the whole time, tall, in a great black cloak. My Lady in her black cloak, just as she landed here. Of course Monsieur the Captain could not have sent her back home with these brigands then—not even a message—that would have compromised his honour. But his honour can see now how it is. And though My Lady has been carried out to sea, he knows now that she is safe."
THE THREE COLOURS
The sun was high above the Welsh hills; the Peregrine had sheered her way through a hundred miles or more of fretted waters before her captain, in his hammock slung for the nonce near the men's quarters, stirred from his profound sleep—nature's kind restorer to healthy brain and limbs—after the ceaseless fatigue and emotions of the last thirty-six hours.
As he leaped to his feet out of the swinging canvas, the usual vigour of life coursing through every fibre of him, he fell to wondering, in half-awake fashion, at the meaning of the unwonted weight lurking in some back recess of consciousness.
Then memory, the ruthless, arose and buffeted his soul.
The one thing had failed him without which all else was as nothing; fate, and his own hot blood, had conspired to place his heart's desire beyond all reasonable hope. Certain phrases in Madeleine's letter crossed and re-crossed his mind, bringing now an unwonted sting of anger, now the old cruel pain of last night. The thought of the hateful complication introduced into his already sufficiently involved affairs by the involuntary kidnapping of his friend's wife filled him with a sense of impotent irritation, very foreign to his temper; and as certain looks and words of the unwished-for prisoner flashed back upon him, a hot colour rose, even in his solitude, to his wholesome brown cheek.
But in spite of all, in spite of reason and feeling alike his essential buoyancy asserted itself. He could not despair. He had not been given this vigour of soul and body to sit down under misfortune. Resignation was for the poor of heart; only cravens gave up while it was yet possible to act. His fair ship was speeding with him as he loved to feel her speed; around him spread the vast spaces in which his spirit rejoiced—salt sea and vaulted heavens; the full air of the open, the brisk dash of the wind filled him with physical exhilaration at every breath, and tingled in his veins; the sporting blood, which had come to him from generations of hunting squires, found all its craving satisfied in this coursing across the green ocean fields, and the added element of danger was as the sting of the brine to his palate. What—despair now? with his perilous enterprise all but accomplished, the whole world, save one country, before him, and Madeleine unwed! Another might, but not Jack Smith; not Hubert Cochrane!
He was actually trolling out the stave of a song as he sprang up the companion ladder after his rough breakfast in the galley, but the sound expired at the sight of the distant flutter of a woman's scarf in the stern of the ship. He halted and ran his fingers through his crisp hair with an expressive gesture of almost comical perplexity; all would be plain sailing enough, with hope at the prow again, but for this—he stamped his foot to choke down the oath of qualification—this encumbrance. Adrian's wife and Madeleine's sister, as such entitled to all honour, all care, and devotion; and yet, as such again, hideously, doubly unwelcome to him!
As he stood, biting his lips, while the gorgeous sunshine of the young spring morning beat down upon his bare head, the brawny figure of the mate, his mahogany-tinted face wrinkled into as stiff a grin as if it had been indeed carved out of the wood in question, intervened between his abstracted gaze and the restless amber beyond.
"It's a fine day, sir," by way of opening conversation.
The irrepressible satisfaction conveyed by the wide display of tobacco-stained teeth, by the twinkle in the hard, honest eyes called up a queer, rueful grimace to the other man's face.
"Do you know, Curwen," he said, "that you brought me the wrong young lady last night?"
The sailor jumped back in amazement. "The wrong young lady, sir," staring with starting, incredulous eyeballs, "the wrong, young lady!" here he clapped his thigh, "Well of all—the wrong young lady! Are you quite sure, sir?"
Captain Jack laughed aloud. But it was with a bitter twist at the corners of his lips.
"Well I'm——," said poor Curwen. All his importance and self-satisfaction had left him as suddenly as the starch a soused collar. He scanned his master's face with almost pathetic anxiety.
"Oh, I don't blame you—you did your part all right. Why, I myself fell into the same mistake, and we had not much time for finding it out, had we? The lady you see—the lady—she is the other lady's sister and she came with a message. And so we carried her off before we knew where we were—or she either," added Captain Jack as a mendacious after thought.
"Well I'm——," reiterated Curwen who then rubbed his scrubby, bristling chin, scratched his poll and finally broke into another grin—this time of the kind classified as sheepish.
"And what'll be to do now?"
"By the God that made me, I haven't a notion! We must take all the care of her we can, of course. Serve her her meals in her cabin, as was arranged, and see that she is attended to, just as the other young lady would have been you know, only that I think she had better be served alone, and I shall mess downstairs as usual. And then if we can leave her at St. Malo, we shall. But it must be in all safety, Curwen, for it's a terrible responsibility. Happily we have now the time to think. Meanwhile I have slept like a log and she—I see is astir before me."
"Lord bless you, sir, she has been up these two hours! Walking the deck like a sailor, and asking about things and enjoying them like. Ah, she is a rare lady, that she is! And it is the wrong one—well this is a go! And I was remarking to Bill Baxter, just now, that it was just our captain's luck to have found such a regular sailor's young woman, so I said—begging pardon for the word. And not more than he is worth, says he, and so said I also. And she the wrong lady after all! Well, it's a curious thing, sir, nobody could be like to guess it from her. She's a well-plucked one, with her wound and all. She made me look at it this morning, when I brought her a cup of coffee and a bite: 'You're old enough to be my father,' says she, as pretty as can be, 'so you shall be doctor as well as lady's maid; and, if you've got a girl of your own, it'll be a story to tell her by the fire at night, when you're home again,' so she said; and never winced when I put my great fingers on her arm. I was all of a tremble, I declare, with her a smiling up at me, but the wound—it's doing finely; healing as nice as ever I see, and not a sign of sickness on her. The very lady as I was saying, for our captain—but here she comes."
This was an unwontedly long speech for Curwen; and, silent again, he effaced himself discreetly, just in time to avoid the angry ejaculation that had sprung to his captain's lips, but not without a backward glance of admiration at the tall, alert figure now bearing down in their direction with steps already firmly balanced to the movement of the ship.
At a little distance from Captain Jack, Molly paused as if to scrutinise the horizon, and enjoy the invigorating atmosphere. In reality her heart was beating fast, her breath came short; and the gaze she flung from the faint outline of coast upon one side to the vast monotony of sparkling sea upon the other conveyed no impression to her troubled mind. The next instant he was by her side. As she smiled at him, he noticed that her face was pale, and her eyes darkly encircled.
"Ah, madam," said he, as he drew close and lifted his hand to his head, with a gesture of formal courtesy that no doubt somewhat astonished a couple of his men who were watching the group with covert smiles and nudges, being as yet unaware of the misadventure, "you relieve my mind of anxiety. How is the arm? Does it make you suffer much? No! You must be strong indeed."
"Yes, I am strong," answered she, and flushed, and looked out across the sea, inhaling the air with dilated nostrils.
Within her, her soul was crying out to him. It was as if there was a tide there, as fierce and passionate as the waves around her, all bearing, straining to him, and this with a struggle and flow so resistless, that she could neither remember the past, nor measure the future, but only feel herself carried on, beaten and tossed upon these great waters, like a helpless wreck.
"I trust you are well attended to," began the man constrainedly again. "I fear you will have to endure much discomfort. I had reckoned——." Here he halted galled by the thought of what it was he had reckoned upon, the thought of the watchful love that was to have made of the little ship a very nest for his bride, of the exquisite joy it was to have harboured! And he set his teeth at fate.
She played for a while with her little finger tips upon the rail, then turned her gaze, full and bold, upon him.
"I do not complain," she said.
He bowed gravely. "We will do our best for you, and if you will take patience, the time will pass at last, as all time passes. I have a few books, they shall be brought into your cabin. In three days we shall be in St. Malo—There, if you like——" he hesitated, embarrassed.
"There!" echoed Lady Landale with her eyes still fixed upon his downcast face—"If I like—what?"
"We could leave you——"
Her bosom rose and fell quickly with stormy breaths. "Alone, moneyless, in a strange town—that is well and kindly thought!" she said.
Whence had come to her this strange power of feeling pain? She had not known that one could suffer in one's heart like this; she, whose quarrel with life hitherto had been for its too great comfort, security and peace. She felt a lump rise to her throat, and tears well into her eyes, blurring all the sunlit vision and she turned her head away and beat her sound left hand clenched upon the ledge.
"Before heaven," cried Jack, distressed out of his unnatural stiffness, "you mistake me, Lady Landale! I am only anxious to do what is best for you, what Adrian would wish. To leave you alone, deserted, helpless at St. Malo, you could not have thought I should mean that? No, indeed, I would have seen you into safe hands, in some comfortable hotel, with a maid to wait upon you—I know of such a place—Adrian could not have been long in coming to fetch you. I should have had a letter ready to post to him the instant we landed. As to money," flushing boyishly, "that is the least consideration—there is no dearth of that to fear. If you prefer it I can, however, convey you somewhere upon the English coast after we quit St. Malo; but that will entail a longer residence for you here on board ship; and it is no fit place for you."
Still looking out across the sea, Molly replied, in a deep shaken voice, unlike her own, "You did not think it unfit for my sister."
"Your sister? But your sister was to have been my wife!"
Burning through the mists of her unshed tears once more her glance returned to his: "And I—" she cried and here was suddenly silent again, gazing at the thin circlet of gold upon her left hand, beneath the flashing diamonds. After a moment then, she broke out fiercely—"Oh do with me what you will, but for God's sake leave me in peace!" And stamping, turned her shoulder on him to stare straight outwards as before.
Captain Jack drew back, paused an instant, clutched his hair with a desperate gesture and slowly walked away.
* * * * *
The voyage of the Peregrine was as rapid as her captain had hoped, and the dawn of the fourth day broke upon them from behind the French coast, where Normandy joins old Armorica.
For a little while, Lady Landale, awakened from her uneasy sleep by the unusual stir on deck, lay languidly watching the light as it filtered through the port-hole of her little cabin, the colours growing out of greyness on the walls; listening to the tramp of feet and the mate's husky voice without. Then her heart tightened with a premonition of the coming separation. She sat up and looked out of her window: as the horizon rose and fell giddily to her eye there lay the fatal line of land. The land of her blood but to her now, the land of exile!
She had seen but little of Captain Jack these last two days; interchanged but few and formal words with him, now and then, as they met morning and evening or came across each other during the day. She felt that he avoided her. But she had seen him, she had heard his voice, they had been close to each other upon the great seas, however divided, and this had been something to feed upon. Now what prospect before her hungry heart but—starvation?
At least the last precious moments should not be lost to her. She rose and dressed in haste; a difficult operation in her maimed state. Before leaving her narrow quarters, she peered into the looking-glass with an eagerness she had never displayed in the days of her vain girlhood.
"What a fright!" she said to the anxious face that looked back at her with yearning eyes and dark burning lips. And she thought of Madeleine's placid fairness as Cain might of Abel's modest altar.
When she emerged upon deck, a strange and beautiful scene was spread to her gaze. A golden haze enveloped the water and the coast, but out of it, in brown jagged outline, against the blazing background of glowing sunlight rose the towers, the pointed roofs and spires of that old corsair's hive, St. Malo. The waters were bright green, frothed with oily foam around the ship. The masts cast strange long black shadows, and Molly saw one spring from her own feet as she moved into the morning glow. The Peregrine, she noticed, was cruising parallel with the coast, instead of making for the harbour, and just now all was very still on board. Two men, conspicuous against the yellow sky, stood apart, a little forward, with their backs turned to her.
One of these was Captain Jack, gazing steadily at the town through a telescope; the other the mate. Both were silent. Silently herself and unnoticed Molly went up and stood beside them; observing her sister's lover as intently as he that unknown distant point, she presently saw the lean hand nearest her tremble ever so slightly as it held the glass; then he turned and handed it to his companion, saying briefly, "See what you make of it."
The man lifted the glass, set it, looked, dropped his hand and faced his captain. Their eyes met, but neither spoke for a second or two.
"It is so, then?" said the captain at last.
"Aye, sir, no mistake about that. There's the tricolour up again—and be damned to it—as large as life, to be sure!"
The healthy tan of the captain's face had not altered by one shade; his mouth was set in its usual firm line, but, by the intuition of her fiery soul, the woman beside him knew that he had received a blow.
"A strange thing," went on Curwen in a grumbling guttural bass, "and it's only a year ago since they set up the old white napkin again. You did not look for this, sir?" He too had his intuitions.
"No, Curwen, it is the last thing I looked for. And it spells failure to me—failure once more!"
As he spoke he turned his head slightly and perceiving Molly standing close behind him glanced up sharply and frowned, then strove to smooth his brow into conventional serenity and greeted her civilly.
Curwen, clenching his hard hands together round the telescope, retired a step and stood apart, still hanging on his captain's every gesture like a faithful dog.
"What does it mean?" asked Molly, disregarding the morning salutation.
"It means strange things to France," responded Captain Jack slowly, with a bitter smile; "and to me, Madam, it means that I have come on a wild goose chase——"
He stretched out his hand for the glass once more as he spoke—although even by the naked eye the flag, minute as it was, could be seen to flash red in the breeze—and sought the far-off flutter again; and then closing the instrument with an angry snap, tossed it back.
"But what does it mean?" reiterated Molly, a wild impatience, a wild hope trembling in her breast.
"It means, Madam, that I have brought my pigs to the wrong market," cried Captain Jack, still with the smile that sat so strangely upon his frank lips; "that the goods I have to deliver, I cannot deliver. For if there is any meaning in symbols, by the wave of that tricolour yonder the country has changed rulers again. My dealings were to be with the king's men, and as they are not here, at least, no longer in power—how could they be under that rag?—I must even trot the cargo home again. Not a word to the men, Curwen, but give the order to sheer off! We have lowered the blue, white and red too often, have not we? to risk a good English ship, unarmed, under the nozzles of those Republican or Imperial guns."
The man grinned. The two could trust each other. Molly turned away and moved seawards, for she knew that the joy upon her face was not to be hidden. Captain Jack fell to pacing the deck with bent head, and long, slow steps.
Absorbed in dovetailing the last secret arrangements of his venture, and more intent still, during his very few hours of idleness, on the engrossing thought of love, he had had no knowledge of the extraordinary challenge to fate cast by Bonaparte, of that challenge which was to end in the last and decisive clash of French and English hosts. He had not even heard of the Corsican's return to France with his handful of grenadiers, for newspapers were scarce at Scarthey. But even had he heard, like the rest of the world, he would no doubt have thought no more of it than as a mad freak born of the vanquished usurper's foolhardy restlessness.
But the conclave of plenipotentiaries assembled at Vienna were not more thunderstruck when, on that very 19th of March, the semaphore brought them news of the legitimate King of France once more fled, and of his country once more abandoned to the hated usurper, than was Captain Jack as he watched the distant flagstaff in the sunrise, and saw, when the morning port gun had vomited forth its white cloud on the ramparts of St. Malo, the fatal stripes run up the slender line in lieu of the white standard.
But Jack Smith's mind, like his body, was quick in action. The sun had travelled but a degree or two over the wide undulating land, the mists were yet rising, when suddenly he halted, and called the mate in those commanding tones that had, from the first time she had heard them, echoed in Molly's heart:
"Bring her alongside one of those smacks yonder, the furthest out to sea."
Thereupon followed Curwen's hoarse bellow, an ordered stampede upon the deck, and gracefully, with no more seeming effort than a swan upon a garden pond, the Peregrine veered and glided towards the rough skiff with its single ochre sail and its couple of brown-faced fishermen, who had left their nets to watch her advance. Captain Jack leant over the side, his hands over his mouth, and hailed them in his British-French—correct enough, but stiff to his tongue, as Molly heard and smiled at, and loved him for, in woman's way, when she loves at all.
"Ahoy, the friend! A golden piece for him who will come on board and tell the news of the town."
A brief consultation between the fisher pair.
"Un ecu d'or," repeated Captain Jack. Then there was a flash of white teeth on the two weather-beaten faces.
"On y va, patron," cried one of the fellows, cheerfully, and jumped into his dinghey, while his comrade still stared and grinned, and the stalwart lads of the Peregrine grinned back at the queer foreign figure with the brown cap and the big gold earrings.
Soon the fisherman's bare feet were thudding on the deck, and he stood before the English captain, cap in hand, his little, quick black eyes roaming in all directions, over the wonders of the beautiful white ship, with innocent curiosity. But before Captain Jack could get his tongue round another French phrase, Molly, detaching herself from her post of observation, came forward, smiling.
"Let me speak to him," she said, "he will understand me better, and it will go quicker. What is it you want to know?"
Captain Jack hesitated a moment, saw the advantage of the suggestion, and then accepted the offer with the queer embarrassment that always came over him in his relations with her.
"You are very good," he said.
"Oh, I like to talk the father and mother tongue," she said, gaily and sweetly. Her eyes danced; he had never seen her in this mood, and, as before, grudgingly had to admit her beauty.
"And if you will allow it," she went on, "I am glad to be of use too."
The fisherman, twirling his cap in his knotted fingers, stared at her open mouthed. Une si belle dame! like a queen and speaking his tongue that it was a music to listen to. This was in truth a ship of marvels. Ah, bon Dieu, oui, Madame, there were news at St. Malo, but it depended upon one's feelings whether they were to be regarded as good or bad—Dame, every one has one's opinions—but for him—pourvu qu'on lui fiche la paix—what did it matter who sat on the throne—His Majesty the King—His Majesty the Emperor, or Citizen Bonaparte. Oh, a poor fisherman, what was it to him? He occupied himself with his little fishes, not with great folk. (Another white-teethed grin.) What had happened? Parbleu, it began by the military, those accursed military (this with a cautious look around, and gathering courage by seeing no signs of disapproval, proceeding with greater volubility). The poor town was full of them, infantry and artillery; regiments of young devils—and a band of old ones too. The veterans of celui la (spitting on the deck contemptuously) they were the worst; that went without saying. A week ago there came a rumour that he had escaped—was in France—and then the ferment began—duels every day—rows in the cafes, fights in the ports. At night one would hear shouts in the streets—Vive l'Empereur! and it spread, it spread. Ma foi—one regiment mutinied, then another—and then it was known that the Emperor had reached Paris. Oh, then it was warm! All those gentlemen, the officers who were for the King, were arrested. Then there was a grand parade on the place d'armes—Yes, he went there too, though he did not care much about soldiers. All the garrison was there. The colonel of the veterans came out with a flag in its case. Portez armes! Good. They pull out the flag from the case: it's the old tricolour with the eagle on the top! Presentez armes! And this time it was all over. Ah, one should have seen that, heard the houras, seen the bonfires! Monsieur le Maire and the rest, appointed by the King, they were in a great fright, they had to give way—what does Madame say? Traitors? Oh, bedame (scratching his head), it was no joke with the military just now—the whole place was under military law and, saperlotte, when the strong commands it is best for the weak to obey. As for him, he was only a poor fisherman. What did he know? he was not a politician: every one to his trade. So long as they let one have the peace—He thanked the gentleman, thanked him much; thanked the lady, desired to wish her the good-morning and Monsieur too. Did they like no little fresh soles this morning? He had some leaping then below in his boat. No? well the good-morning then.
They had heard enough. The fisherman paddled back to his skiff, and Molly stood watching from a little distance the motionless figure of the captain of the Peregrine as with one hand clenching the hand-rail he gazed towards St. Malo with troubled eyes.
After a few minutes Curwen advanced and touched him lightly on the arm.
Captain Jack turned slowly to look at him: his face was a little pale and his jaw set. But the mate, who had served under him since the day he first stepped upon the old St. Nicholas, a gallant, fair-faced lad (and who knew "every turn of him," as he would have expressed it himself), saw that he had taken his decision; and he stepped back satisfied, ready to shape his course for the near harbour, or for the Pacific Ocean, or back to Scarthey itself at his master's bidding.
"Call the men up," said the captain, "they have earned their bounty and they shall have it. Though their skipper is a poorer man than he thought to be, by this fool's work yonder, his good lads shall not suffer. Tush, man, that's the order—not a word. And after that, Curwen, let her make for the sea again, northwards."
THE LIGHT AGAIN—THE LADY AND THE CARGO
Does not all the blood within me Leap to meet thee, leap to meet thee, As the spring to meet the sunshine!
"Curwen," said Captain Jack, suddenly—the two stood together at the helm on the afternoon of the same day, and the Peregrine was once more alone, a speck upon the waste of waters, "I have made up my mind to return to Scarthey."
The mate wagged his bushy eyebrows and shifted his hand on the helm. "Ay, ay, sir," he said, after just an instant's pause.
"I would not run you and the men into unnecessary danger, that you may be sure of; but the fact is, Curwen, I'm in a devil of a fix all round. There's no use hiding it from you. And, all things considered, to land the lady and the cargo at the lighthouse itself, gives me as fair a chance of getting out of it as any plan I can think of. The cargo's not all my own and it's a valuable one, I daresay you have guessed as much; and it's not the kind we want revenue men to pry into. I could not unload elsewhere that I know of, without creating suspicion. As to storing it elsewhere, it's out of the question. Scarthey's the place, though it's a damned risky one just now! But we've run many a risk together in our day, have we not?"
"Ay, sir; who's afraid?"
"Then there's the lady," lowering his voice; "she's Lady Landale, my friend's wife, the wife of the best friend ever man had. Ay, you remember him, I doubt not—the gentleman seaman of the Porcupine—I owe him more than I can ever repay, and he owes me something too. That sort of thing binds men together; and see what I have done to him—carried off his wife!"
Curwen grunted, enigmatically, and disengaged a hand to scratch his chin.
"I must have speech with him. I must, it is enough to drive me mad to think what he may be thinking of me. What I purpose is this: we'll disguise the ship as far as we can (we have the time), paint her a new streak and alter those topsails, change the set of the bowsprit and strike out her name."
"That's unlucky," said the mate.
"Unlucky, is it? Well, she's not been so lucky this run that we need fear to change the luck. Then, Curwen, we'll slip in at night at a high tide, watching for our opportunity and a dark sky; we'll unship the cargo, and then you shall take command of her and carry her off to the East Coast and wait there, till I am able to send you word or join you. It will only be a few hours danger for the men, after all."
Still keeping his seaman eye upon the compass, Curwen cleared his throat with a gruesome noise. Then in tones which seemed to issue with difficulty from some immense depth:
"Beg pardon, sir," he said, "that ain't a bargain."
"How now?" cried his captain, sharply.
"No, sir," rolling his head portentously; "that don't run to a bargain, that don't. The lads of the Peregrine 'll stick to their skipper through thick and thin. I'll warrant them, every man Jack of them; and if there was one who grumbled, I'd have my knife in him before another caught the temper from him—I would, or my name's not Curwen. If ye bid us steer to hell we'll do it for you, sir, and welcome. But for to go and leave you there—no, sir, it can't be done."
Captain Jack gave a little laugh that was as tender as a woman's tear. Curwen rolled his head again and mumbled to himself:
"It can't be done."
Then Jack Smith clapped his hand on the sailor's shoulder.
"But it's got to be done!" he cried. "It is the only thing you can do to help me, Curwen. To have our Peregrine out in the daylight on that coast would be stark madness—no disguise could avail her, and you can't change your ugly old phiz, can you? As for me, I must have a few days on shore, danger or no danger. Ah, Curwen," with a sudden, passionate outbreak, "there are times when a man's life is the least of his thoughts!"
"Couldn't I stop with you, sir?"
"I would not trust the ship to another, and you would double the risk for me."
"I could double a blow for you too," cried the fellow, hoarsely. "But if it's got to be—it must be. I'll do it, sir."
"I count on it," said the captain, briefly.
As the ring of his retreating steps died away upon his ear the mate shook his head in melancholy fashion:
"Women," he said, "is very well, I've nought to say against them in their way. And the sea's very well—as I ought to know. But women and the sea, it don't agree. They's jealous one of the other and a man gets torn between."
As Molly sat in her cabin, watching the darkening sky outside with dreaming eyes, she started on seeing Captain Jack approach, and instead of passing her with cold salute, halt and look in.
"I would speak a word with you," he said.
"On deck, then," said Molly. She felt somehow as if under the broad heaven they were nearer each other than in that narrow room. The sea was rough, the wind had risen and still blew from the north, it was cold; but her blood ran too fast these days to heed it.
She drew one of the capes of her cloak over her head and staggering a little, for the schooner, sailing close to the wind, pitched and rolled to some purpose, she made for her usual station at the bulwarks.
"Well?" she asked.
He briefly told her his purpose of returning to Scarthey direct.
Her eye dilated; she grew pale.
"Is that not dangerous?"
He made a contemptuous gesture.
"But they must be watching for you on that coast. You have sunk the boat—killed those men. To return there—My God, what folly!"
"I must land my goods, Madam. You forget that I have more contraband on board than, smuggler as I am, even I bargained for."
"If it is for me?—I would rather fling myself into the waves this instant than that you should expose yourself to danger."
"Then I should fling myself after you, and that would be more dangerous still."
He smiled a little mockingly upon her as he spoke; but the words called a transient fire into her face.
"You would risk your life to save me?" she cried.
"To save Adrian's wife, Madam."
He would have gone then, but she held him with her free hand. She was again white to the lips. But her eyes—how they burned!
He would have given all his worth to avoid what he felt was coming. A woman, at such a juncture may forbid speech, or deny her ear: a man, unless he would seem the first of Josephs or the last of coxcombs, dare not even hint at his unwelcome suspicions.
"I will not have you go into this danger, I will not!" stammered Molly incoherently. The dusk was spreading, and her eyes seemed to grow larger and larger in the uncertain light.
"Lady Landale, you misunderstand. It is true that to see you safely restored to your husband's roof is an added reason for my return to Scarthey—but were you not on board, I should go all the same. I will tell you why, it is a secret, but you shall know it. I have treasures on board, vast treasures confided to me, and I must store them in safety till I can give them back to their rightful owners. This I can only do at Scarthey—for to cruise about with such a cargo indefinitely is as impossible as to land it elsewhere. And more than this, had I not that second reason, I have yet a third that urges me to Scarthey still."
"For Madeleine?" she whispered, and her teeth gleamed between her lips.
He remained silent and tried gently to disengage himself from her slender fingers, but the feeling of their frailness, the knowledge of her wound, made her feeble grasp as an iron vice to his manliness.
She came closer to him.
"Do you not remember then—what she has said to you? what she wrote to you in cold blood—the coward—in the very moment when you were staking your life for love of her? I remember, if you do not—'You have deceived me,' she wrote, and her hand never trembled, for the words ran as neatly and primly as ever they did in her convent copy books. 'You are not what you represented yourself to be—You have taken advantage of the inexperience of an ignorant girl, I have been deluded and deceived. I never wish to see you, to hear of you again.'"
"For Heaven's sake, Lady Landale——" cried the man fiercely.
Molly laughed—one of those laughs that have the ring of madness in them.
"Do I not remember? Ah, that is not all! She knows you now for what you are, knows what your 'mission' is—but you must not believe she writes in anger. No, she——"
Captain Jack's patience could bear no further strain.
"Be silent," he commanded fiercely, and wrenched his arm away to face her with menacing eyes.
"Ah, does it rouse so much anger in you even to hear repeated what she did not hesitate to write, did not hesitate to allow me to read? And yet you love her? If you had seen her, if you knew her as I do! I tell you she means it; when she wrote that she was not angry; it was the truth—she did it in cold blood. She loved you, you think, and yet she believed you a liar; she loved you, and she thinks you a traitor to all she holds dear. She believes that of you, and you ... you love her still!"
"Listen—she could never love you, as you should be loved. She was not born your kin. Between you and her there is nothing—nothing but your own fancy. Do not risk your life again for her—your life!"
She stopped, drew her breath with a long gasp, the spray from a turbulent wave came dashing across the bows into her face, and as once the blood of Cecile de Savenaye had been roused by the call of the wild waters to leave safety and children and seek her doom, so now the blood she had transmitted to her child, leaped to the same impulse and bore her onwards with irresistible force.
"When," she pursued, "in the darkness you took me in your arms and kissed me; what did the touch of my lips bring to you? My lips, not Madeleine's.... Were you not happy then? Oh, you were, do not deny it, I felt, I knew our souls met! My soul and yours, not yours and Madeleine's. And I knew then that we were made for each other. The sea and the wide free life upon it: it draws me as it draws you; it was that drew me to you before I had ever seen you. Listen, listen. Do not go to Scarthey—you have your beautiful ship, your faithful crew—there are rich and wonderful worlds, warm seas that beckon. You can have life, money, adventure—and love, love if you will. Take it, take me with you! What should I care if you were an adventurer, a smuggler, a traitor? What does anything matter if we are only together? Let us go, we have but one life, let us go!"
Bereft of the power of movement he stood before her, and the sweat that had gathered upon his brow ran down his face. But, as the meaning of her proposition was borne in upon him, a shudder of fury shook him from head to foot. No man should have offered dishonour to Jack Smith and not have been struck the next instant at his feet. But a woman—a woman, and Adrian's wife!
"Lady Landale," he said, after a silence during which the beating of her heart turned her sick and cold, and all her fever heat fell from her, leaving nothing but the knowledge of her shame, her misery, her hopeless love. "Lady Landale, let me bring you back to your cabin—it is late."
She went with him as one half-conscious. At the door she paused. The light from within fell upon his face, deeply troubled and white, but upon the lips and brows, what scorn! He was a god among men.... How she loved him, and he scorned her! Poor Murthering Moll!
She looked up.
"Have you no word for me?" she cried passionately.
"Only this, Lady Landale: I will forget."
* * * * *
Back towards the distant northern light the schooner clove her valiant way in spite of adverse winds and high seas.
The return journey was slower than the outward, and since the second day of it the lady kept much to her cabin, while the captain would pace the deck till far into the night, with unwonted uneasiness. To him the white wings of his Peregrine were bearing him all too slowly for endurance, while to the stormy woman's heart that beat through the night watches in passionate echo to his restless tread, every instant that passed but brought nearer the prospect of a future so intolerable that she could not bring herself to face it.
A gloom seemed to have come over the tight little craft, and to have spread even to the crew, who missed the ring of their captain's jolly laugh and the sound of his song.
When, within a day's sail of the goal, the planned disguise was finally carried out upon the schooner's fair sides and rigging, her beautiful stretch of sail curtailed, and her name (final disgrace), superseded by the unmeaning title of The Pretty Jane, open murmurs broke out which it required all Curwen's severity—and if the old martinet did not execute the summary justice he had threatened he was quite equal to the occasion nevertheless—and all Jack's personal influence to quell.
The dawn of the next day crept gloomily upon a world of rain; with long faces the men paddled about the deck, doing their duty in silence; Curwen's old countenance, set into grimmer lines than ever, looked as if it had just been detached from the prow of some vessel after hard experience of stress and storm. The spirits of the captain alone seemed to rise in proportion as they drew nearer land.
"The moon sets at half-past eleven," he said to Curwen, "but we need not fear her to-night. By half-past twelve I reckon on your having those twenty-five damned casks safe in the cave you took them from; it is a matter of three journeys. And then the nose of the Pretty Jane must be pointed for the Orkneys. All's going well."
* * * * *
Night had fallen. "The gaudy bubbling and remorseful day" had "crept into the bosom of the sea." From the cross-trees the look-out man had already been able to distinguish through the glass the faint distant glimmer of Scarthey beacon, when Captain Jack knocked for admittance at Lady Landale's cabin for the last time, as he thought, with a sigh of relief.
"In the course of an hour, Madam," he said in a grave tone, "I hope to restore you to land. As for me, I shall have again to hide in the peel, though I hope it will not be for long. My fate—and by my fate I mean not only my safety, but my honour, which, as you know, is now bound up in the safety of the treasures—will be in your hands. For I must wait at Scarthey till I can see Adrian again, and upon your return to Pulwick I must beg you to be the bearer of a message to ask him to come and see me."
She replied in a voice that trembled a little:
"I will not fail you."
But her great eyes, dark circled, fixed upon him with a meek, sorrowful look, spoke dumbly the troublous tale of her mind. In her subdued mood the likeness to Madeleine was more obtrusive than it had ever yet been. He contemplated her with melancholy, and drew a heavy sigh.
Molly groaned in the depths of her soul, though her lips tight set betrayed no sound. Oh, miserable chaos of the human world, that such pent up love should be wasted—wasted; that they, too, young and strong and beautiful, alone together, so near, with such glorious happiness within their reach, should yet be so perversely far asunder!
There was a long silence. They looked into each other's eyes; but he was unseeing; his mind was far away, dwelling upon the memory of that last meeting with his love under the fir trees of Pulwick only ten days ago, but now as irrevocably far as things seem that may never again be. At length, she made a movement which brought him back to present reality—a movement of her wounded arm as if of pain. And he came back to Lady Landale, worn with the fatigue of these long days in the cramped discomfort of a schooner cabin, thinned by pain and fevered thinkings, shorn of all that daintiness of appearance which can only be maintained in the midst of luxury, and yet, by the light of the flickering lamp, more triumphantly beautiful than ever.
His thoughts leaped to his friend with a pang of remorse.
"You are suffering—you are ill," he said. "Thus do I bring you back to him who last saw you so full of strength.... But you will recover at Pulwick."
"Suffering, ill! Ah, my God!" As if suffocating, she pressed her hand upon her heart, and bowed her head till it rested on the table. And then he heard her murmur in a weary voice:
"Recover at Pulwick! My God, my God! The air at Pulwick will stifle me, I think."
He waited a moment in silence and saw that she was weeping. Then he went out and closed the door behind him with gentle hand.
Nearly all the lights of the ship were now extinguished, and in a gloom as great as that in which they had started upon their unsuccessful venture, the Peregrine and her crew returned to the little island which had already been so fateful to them.
Captain Jack had taken the helm himself, and Curwen stood upon his right hand waiting patiently for his commands. For an hour or so they hung off the shore. The rain fell close and fine around them; it was as if sea and sky were merging by slow imperceptible degrees into one. The beacon light looming, halo encircled, through the mist, seemed, like a monster eye, to watch with unmoved contempt the restlessness of these pigmies in the grand solitude of the night.
Who shall say with what conflict of soul Molly, in her narrow seclusion, saw the light of Scarthey grow out of the dimness till its rays fell across the darkened cabin and glimmered on her wedding ring?
At last the captain drew his watch, and by the faint rays upon the binnacle saw the hour had come.
"Boat loaded, Curwen?" he asked in a low voice.
"This hour, sir."
"Ready to cast?"
Low, from man to man, the order ran through the ship, and the anchor was dropped, almost within a musket shot of the peel. It was high tide, but no hand but Captain Jack's would have dared risk the vessel so close. She swung round, ready to slip at a moment's notice.
He left the helm; and in the wet darkness cannoned against the burly figure of his mate.
"You, Curwen? Remember we have not a moment to lose. Remain here—as soon as the men are back from the last run, sheer off."
He grasped the horny hand.
Curwen made an inarticulate noise in his big throat, but the grip of his fingers upon his master's was of eloquence sufficient.
"Let some one call the lady."
A couple of men ran forward with dark lanterns. The rest gathered round.
"Now, my lads, brisk and silent is the word."
The cabin door opened, and Molly came forth, the darkness hid the pallor of her face, but it could not hide the faltering of her steps. Captain Jack sprang forward and gave her his arm, and she leant upon it without speaking, heavily. For one moment she stopped as if she could not tear her feet from the beloved planks, but Curwen caught her by the other arm; and then she was on the swinging ladder. And so she left the Peregrine.
* * * * *
The gig was almost filled with barrels; there was only room for the four oarsmen selected, besides the captain and herself. The boat shoved off. She looked back and saw, as once before, the great wall of the ship's side rise sheer above the sea, saw the triangle of light again slide down to lie a span above the water-line. With what a leaping heart she had set forth, that black night, away from the hateful lighthouse beam to that glimmer of promise and mystery! And now! She felt herself grow sick at the thought of that home-coming; at the vision of the close warm rooms, of her husband's melancholy eyes. Yet, as she sat, the sleeve of the captain's rough sailor coat touched her shoulder, and she remembered she was still with him. It was not all death yet.
In less than three minutes they touched ground. He jumped into the water, and stretched out his arms for Molly. She rose giddily, and his embrace folded her round. The waves rolled in with surge and thud and dashed their spray upon them; and still the rain fell and beat upon her head, from which she had impatiently pushed her hood. But her spirit had no heed for things of the body this night.
Oh, if the sea would open sudden deeps before them! if even the quicksand would seize them in its murderous jaws, what ecstasy the hideous lingering death might hold for her, so that only she lay, thus, in his arms to the end!
It was over now; his arms had clasped her for the last time. She stood alone upon the dry sand, and her heart was in hell.
He was speaking; asking her pardon for not going at once with her to see her into the keep, but he dared not leave the beach till his cargo was landed, and he must show the men the way to the caves. Would she forgive him, would she go with him?
Forgive him! Go with him! She almost laughed aloud. A few poor moments more beside him; they would be as the drops of water to the burning tongue of Dives.
Yes, she would go with him.
One by one the precious caskets were carried between a couple of men, who stumbled in the darkness, close on their captain's heels. And the lady walked beside him and stood beside him without a word, in the falling rain. The boat went backwards and forwards twice; before the hour had run out, the luckless cargo was all once more landed, and the captain heard with infinite relief the last oar-strokes dwindling away in the distance, and saw the lights suddenly disappear.
"You have been very patient," he said to Molly then, with a gentle note in his voice.
But she did not answer. Are the souls of the damned patient?
* * * * *
"My Lady and Mr. the Captain! My God—my God! so wet—so tired! Enter—enter in the name of heaven. It is good, in verity, to have My Lady back, but, Mr. the Captain, is it well for him to be here? And Madam is ill? She goes pale and red by turns. Madam has the fever for sure! And her arm is hurt, and she is as wet as the first time she came here. Ah, Lord God, what are we coming to? Fire we must have. I shall send the wife."
"Ay, do so, man," cried Captain Jack, looking with concern at Lady Landale, who in truth seemed scarcely able to stand, and whose fluctuating colour and cracked fevered lips gave painful corroboration to Rene's surmise, "your mistress must be instantly attended to."
But Molly arrested the servant as he would have hurried past upon his errand.
"Your master?" she said in a dry whisper, "is he at Pulwick?"
"His honour! My faith, I must be but half-awake yet. Imbecile that I am, his honour—where is he? Is he not with you? No, indeed, he is not at Pulwick, My Lady; he has gone to St. Malo to seek you. Nothing would serve him but that he must go. And so he did not reach in time to meet you? Ah, the poor master—what anxiety for him!"
Captain Jack glanced in dismay at his friend's wife, met her suddenly illumined gaze and turned abruptly on his heel, with a grinding noise.
"See to your mistress," he said harshly, "I hear your women folk are roused overhead; hurry them, and when Lady Landale no longer requires you, I must speak with you on an urgent business of my own. You will find me in my old room."
"Go with the captain at once, Rene, since he wants you," interposed Molly quickly, "here comes Moggie. She will take care of me. Leave me, leave me. I feel strong again. Good-night, Captain Smith, I shall see you to-morrow?"
There was a wistful query in her voice and look.
Captain Smith bowed distantly and coldly, and hastened from the room, accompanied by Rene, while open-mouthed and blinking, rosy, blowsy, and amazed, Mrs. Potter made her entry on the scene and stared at her mistress with the roundest of blue eyes.
* * * * *
"My good Renny," said the captain, "I have no time to lose. I have a hard hour's work to do, before I can even think of talking. I want your help. Your light will burn all safe for the time, will it not? Hark ye, man, you have been so faithful a fellow to my one friend that I am going to trust to you matters which concern my own honour and my own life. Ask no question, but do what I tell you, if you would help one who has helped your master long ago; one whom your master would wish you to help."
Thus adjured, Rene repressed his growing astonishment at the incomprehensible development of events. And having, under direction, provided the sailor with a lantern, and himself with a wide tarpaulin and sundry carpenter's tools, he followed his leader readily enough through the ruinous passages, half choked up with sand, which led from the interior of the ruins to one of the sea caves.
Before reaching the open-mouthed rocky chamber, the captain obscured the light, and Rene promptly barked his shins against a barrel.
"Sacrebleu," he cried, feeling with quick hands the nature of the obstruction, "more kegs?"
"The same, my friend! Now hang that tarpaulin against the mouth of the cave and be sure it is close; then we may again have some light upon the matter. What we must do will not bear interference, and moving glimmers on a dark night have told tales before this."
As soon as the beach entrance was made secure, the captain uncovered his lantern; and as the double row of kegs stood revealed, his eyes rapidly scanned their number. Yes, they were all there: five and twenty.
"Now, to work, man! We have to crack every one of these nuts, and take the kernels out."
Even as he spoke, he turned the nearest cask on end, with a blow of chisel and mallet stove in the head and began dragging out quantities of loose tow. In the centre of the barrel, secured in position on to a stout middle batten, was a bag of sailcloth closely bound with cord. This he lifted with an effort, for it was over a hundred-weight, and flung upon the sand in a corner.
"That's the kernel you see," he said to Rene, who had watched the operation with keen interest. "And when we have shelled them all I will show you where to put them in safety. Now carry on—the quicker the better. The sooner we have it all upstairs, the freer I shall breathe."
Without another word, entering into the spirit of haste which seemed to fill his companion, and nobly controlling his seething curiosity, Rene set to work on his side, with his usual dexterousness.
Half an hour of speechless destructive labour completed the first part of the task. Then the two men carried the weighty bags into the room which had been Captain Jack's in the keep. And when they had travelled to and fro a dozen times with each heavy load, and the whole treasure was at length accumulated upstairs, Rene, with fresh surprise and admiration, saw the captain lift the hearthstone and disclose a recess in the heavy masonry—presumably a flue, in the living days of Scarthey peel—which, although much blocked with stony rubbish, had been evidently improved by the last lodger during his period of solitary residence into a convenient and very secure hiding-place.
Here was the precious pyramid now heaped up; the stone was returned to its place, and the two stood in front of each other mopping their faces.
"Thank goodness, it is done," said Jack Smith. "And thank you too, Renny. To-morrow, break up these casks and add the staves to your firewood stack; then nobody but you, in this part of the world, need be any the wiser about our night's work.—A smart piece of running, eh?—Phew, I am tired! Bring me some food, and some brandy, like a good fellow. Then you can back to your pillow and flatter yourself that you have helped Jack Smith out of a famous quandary."
Rene grinned and rushed to execute the order. He had less desire for his pillow than for the gratification of his hyper-excited curiosity.
But although pressed to quaff one cup of good fellowship and yet another, he was not destined to get his information, that night, from the captain, who had much ado to strangle his yawns sufficiently to swallow a mouthful or two of food.
"No one must know, Renny," was all he said, at last, between two gapes, kicking the hearthstone significantly, and stretching his arms, "not even the wife." Then he flung himself all dressed upon his bed.
"And my faith," said Rene, when he sought his wife a moment later, "he was fast asleep before I had closed the door."
THE END OF THE THREAD
Madeleine had appeared greatly distressed at the thought that, through her, her sister was now in so doubtful and precarious a situation. It was part of her punishment, she told herself for her sins of deceit and unmaidenliness in encouraging and meeting a clandestine lover.
She had gone through some very bitter hours since her tryst at the ruins. The process of cutting off a malignant growth that has become part of oneself is none the less painful because the conviction is clear that it is for one's health to do so, and the will is firm not to falter. Not the less is the flesh mangled, do nerves throb, and veins bleed. But Madeleine was determined that nobody should even guess her sufferings.
Rupert had counted upon Sophia's old habit of obedience to him, and upon her superstitious terrors not to betray to the young girl the part he had played in the unmasking of her lover; but he had an unexpected, and even more powerful ally in Madeleine's own pride. When Miss Sophia had tremblingly endeavoured to falter out a few words of sympathy and sorrow, upon the distressing subject, Madeleine quickly interrupted her.
"Never speak even his name again, Sophia; all that is finished for me."
There was such a cold finality in her voice, that the poor confidant's expansiveness withered up within her beyond even the hope of blossoming again.
When Rupert heard of Captain Jack's latest doings, and especially of his sister-in-law's disappearance, he thought that the fates were propitious indeed. In his wildest schemes he could not have planned anything that would have suited his game more perfectly.
Though he thought it incumbent upon him to pull a face of desperate length whenever the subject was touched, in his innermost soul he had hardly ever enjoyed so delightful a joke as this denouement to his brother's marriage and to his cousin's engagement. And, strange to say, though he would most gravely protest against any interpretation of his kinswoman's disappearance save the one which must most redound to her credit, the story, started by the gossips in the village upon the return of the revenue men, that Lady Landale had bolted with the handsome smuggler, grew and spread apace all over the county, more especially from such houses as Rupert was wont to visit.
That all his hints and innuendoes should fail, apparently, to make Madeleine put upon the case the interpretation he would have liked, was at once a matter of secret sneering and of admiration to his curiously complicated mind.
The days went by, to all appearance placidly enough, for the trio at Pulwick. Madeleine shunned none of the usages of life in common, worked and talked with Sophia of a morning, rode or walked out with Rupert of an afternoon; and passed the evening at her embroidery frame meeting his efforts to entertain her as amiably as before.
Rupert thought he knew enough of the human heart, and more especially the feminine, to draw satisfactory conclusions from this behaviour. For a girl to bear no malice to the man who had taken it upon himself to demonstrate to her the unworthiness of her lover, argued, to his mind, that her affections could not have been very deeply engaged in that quarter. It was clear that she felt gratitude for a timely rescue. Nay, might he not go further, and lay the flattering unction to his soul that she would not be unwilling to transfer these same blighted feelings to a more suitable recipient?
A slight incident which took place a few nights later, tended still more to increase the kindness of Madeleine's manner to him upon the next day; but this was for a reason that he little suspected.