It had been an anniversary with Sophia—none less indeed than that of the lamented Rector's demise. When her young cousin had retired to her room, the desire to pursue her thither with a packet of old letters, and other treasures exhumed from the depths of her cupboards, had proved too strong for a soul burning for congenial sympathy; and Sophia had spent a couple of very delightful hours pouring forth reminiscences and lamentations into the bosom of one who, as she said, she knew could understand her.
Madeleine a little wearied, stifling a sigh or a yawn as the minutes ticked by, was too gentle, too kind-hearted to repel the faithful, if loquacious mourner; so she had sat and listened, which was all that Sophia required.
Upon the stroke of twelve, Miss Landale rose at length, collected her relics, and mopping her swollen eyes, embraced her cousin, and bade her good-night with much effusion, while with cordial alacrity the latter conducted her to the door.
But here Sophia paused. Holding the flat silver candlestick with one hand, with the other clasping to her bosom her bundle of superannuated love letters, she glanced out into the long black chasm of corridor with a shudder, and vowed she had not the courage to traverse it alone at such an hour. She cast as she spoke such a meaning glance at Madeleine's great bed, that, trembling lest her next words should be a proposal to share it for the night, the young girl hurriedly volunteered to re-conduct her to her own apartment.
Half way down the passage they had to pass the door of the picture gallery, which was ajar, disclosing light within. At the sight of Rupert standing with his back to them, looking fixedly at the picture upon the opposite wall, Sophia promptly thought better of the scream she was preparing, and seized her cousin by the arm.
"Come away, come away," she whispered, "he will be much displeased if he sees us."
Madeleine allowed herself to be pulled onward, but remembering Molly's previous encounter upon the same spot, was curious enough to demand an explanation of Rupert's nocturnal rambles when they had reached the haven of Sophia's bedroom. It was very simple, but it struck her as exceedingly pathetic and confirmed her in her opinion of the unreasonableness of her sister's dislike to Rupert.
He was gazing at his dead wife's picture. He could not bear, Sophia said, for any one to find him there; could not bear the smallest allusion to his grief, but at night, as she had herself discovered quite by accident, he would often spend long spells as they had just seen him.
There was something in Madeleine's own nature, a susceptible proud reserve which made this trait in her cousin's character thoroughly congenial; moreover, what woman is not drawn with pity towards the man who can so mourn a woman.
She met him therefore, the next day, with a softness, almost a tenderness, of look and smile which roused his highest hopes. And when he proposed, after breakfast, that they should profit by the mild weather to stroll in the garden while Sophia was busy in the house, she willingly consented.
Up the gravel paths, between the gooseberry bushes, to the violet beds they went. It was one of those balmy days that come sometimes in early spring and encourage all sorts of false hopes in the hearts of men and vegetables. "A growing day," the farmers call them; indeed, at such times you may almost hear the swelling and the bursting of the buds, the rising of the sap, the throbbing and pushing of the young green life all around.
Madeleine grew hot with the weight of her fur tippet, the pale face under the plumy hat took an unusual pink bloom; her eyes shone with a moist radiance. Rupert, glancing up at her, as, bent upon one knee, he sought for stray violets amid the thick green leaves, thought it was thus a maiden looked who waited to be won; and though all of true love that he could ever give to woman lay buried with his little bride, he felt his pulses quicken with a certain aesthetic pleasure in the situation. Presently he rose, and, after arranging his bunch of purple sweetness into dainty form, offered it silently to his companion.
She took it, smiling, and carried it mechanically to her face.
Oh, the scent of the violets! Upon the most delicate yet mighty pinions she was carried back, despite all her proud resolves to that golden hour, only five days ago, when she lay upon her lover's broad breast, and heard the beating of his heart beneath her ear.
Again she felt his arm around her, so strong, yet so gentle; saw his handsome face bent towards her, closer—ever closer—felt again the tide of joy that coursed through her veins in the expectation of his kiss.
No, no, she must not—she would not yield to this degrading folly. If it were not yet dead, then she must kill it.
She had first grown pale, but the next moment a deep crimson flooded her face. She turned her head away, and Rupert saw her tremble as she dropped the hand that held the flowers close clenched by her side. He formed his own opinion of what was passing within her, and it made even his cold blood course hotly in his veins.
"Madeleine," he said, with low rapid utterance; "I am not mistaken, I trust, in thinking you look on me as a good friend?"
"Indeed, yes;" answered the girl, with an effort, turning her tremulous face towards him; "a good friend indeed."
Had he not been so five days ago? Aye, most truly, and she would have it so, in spite of the hungry voice within her which had awaked and cried out against the knowledge that had brought such misery.
He saw her set her little teeth and toss her head, and knew she was thinking of the adventurer who had dared aspire to her. And he gained warmer courage still.
"Nothing more than a friend, sweet?"
"A kind cousin; almost a brother."
"No, no; not a brother, Madeleine. Nay, hear me," taking her hands and looking into her uncomprehending eyes, "I would not be a brother, but something closer, dearer. We are both alone in the world, more or less. Whom have you but a mad-cap sister, a poor dreamer of a brother-in-law, an octogenarian aunt, to look to? I have no one, no one to whom my coming or my going, my living or my dying makes one pulse beat of difference—except poor Sophia. Let us join our loneliness and make of it a beautiful and happy home. Madeleine, I have learned to love you deeply!"
His eyes glowed between their narrowing eyelids, his voice rang changes upon chords of most exquisite tenderness; his whole manner was charged with a courtly reverence mingled with the subtlest hint of passion. Rupert as a lover had not a flaw in him.
Yet fear, suspicion, disgust chased each other in Madeleine's mind in quick succession. What did he mean? How could it be that he loved her? Oh! if this had been his purpose, what motive was prompting him when he divided her from her deceiving lover? Was no one true then? Was this the inconsolable widower whose grief she had been so sympathetically considering all the morning; for whose disinterested anxiety and solicitude on her behalf her sore heart had forced itself to render gratitude? Oh! how terrible it all was ... what a hateful world!
"Well, Madeleine?" he pressed forward and slid his arm around her.
All her powers of thought and action restored by the deed, she disengaged herself with a movement of unconscious repulsion.
"Cousin Rupert, I am sure you mean kindly by me, but it is quite impossible—I shall never marry."
He drew back, as nonplussed as if she had struck him in the face.
"Pshaw, my dear Madeleine."
"Please, Cousin Rupert, no more."
"My dear girl, I have been precipitate."
"Nothing can make any difference. That I could never marry you, so much you must believe; that I shall never marry at all you are free to believe or not, as you please. I am sorry you should have spoken."
"Still hankering after that beggarly scoundrel?" muttered Rupert, a sneer uncovering his teeth betrayed hideously the ungenerous soul within. He was too deeply mortified, too shaken by this utter shattering of his last ambitions to be able to grasp his usual self-control.
Madeleine gave him one proud glance, turned abruptly away, and walked into the house.
She went steadily up to her room, and, once there, without hesitation proceeded to unlock a drawer in her writing-table and draw from it a little ribbon-tied parcel of letters—Jack's letters.
Her heart had failed her, womanlike, before the little sacrifice when she had unshrinkingly accomplished the larger one. Now, however, with determined hand, she threw the letters into the reddest cavern of her wood-fire and with hard dry eyes watched them burn. When the last scrap had writhed and fluttered and flamed into grey ash, she turned to her altar, and, extending her arm, called out aloud:
"I have done with it all for ever——"
And the next instant flinging herself upon her bed, she drew her brown ringlets before her face, and under this veil wept for her broken youth and her broken heart, and the hard cold life before her.
* * * * *
There is a kind of love a man can give to woman but once in his lifetime: the love of the man in the first flush of manhood for the woman he has chosen to be his mate, untransferable and never to be forgotten: love of passion so exquisite, of devotion so pure, born of the youth of the heart and belonging to an existence and personality lost for ever. A man may wed again, and (some say) love again, but between the boards of the coffin of his first wife—if he has loved her—lie secrets of tenderness, and sweetness, and delight, which, like the spring flowers, may not visit the later year.
But, notwithstanding this, a second wooing may have a charm and an interest of its own, even the wooing which is to precede a marriage of convenience.
So Rupert found. The thought of an alliance with Madeleine de Savenaye was not only engrossing from the sense of its own intrinsic advantages, but had become the actual foundation-stone of all his new schemes of ambition.
Nay, more: such admiration and desire as he could still feel for woman, he had gradually come to centre upon his fair and graceful cousin, who added to her personal attractions the other indispensable attributes, blood, breeding and fortune. Mr. Landale was as essentially refined and fastidious in his judgment as he was unmeasured in his ambition.
His error of precipitancy had been pardonable enough; and mere self-reproach for an ill-considered manoeuvre would not have sufficed to plunge him into such a depth of bitter and angry despondency as that in which he now found himself. But the rebuff had been too uncompromising to leave him a single hope. He was too shrewd not to see that here was no pretty feminine nay, precursor of the yielding yea, not to realise that Madeleine had meant what she said and would abide by it. And, under the sting of the moment betrayed into a degradingly ill-mannered outburst, he had shown that he measured the full bearings of the position.
So, the wind still sat in that quarter!
Failing the mysterious smuggler, it was to be nobody with the Savenaye heiress—and least of all Rupert Landale.
And this, though the scoundrel had been thoroughly shown up; though he had started upon his illegal venture and was gone, never to return if he valued his neck, after murdering four officers of the crown and sinking a king's vessel; though he had carried away with him (ah! there was consolation in that excellent jest which had so far developed into Sir Adrian's wild goose chase to France and might still hold some delicate denouement), had carried with him no less a person than Lady Landale herself (the fellow had good taste, and either of the sisters was a dainty morsel), he still left the baneful trail of his influence behind him upon the girl he had deluded and beguiled!
Rupert Landale, who, for motives of his own had pleased himself by hunting down Madeleine's lover, had felt, in the keenness of his blood-hound work, something of the blood-hound instinct of destruction and ferocity spring up within him before he had even set eyes on his quarry. And the day they had stood face to face this instinctive hatred had been intensified by some singular natural antagonism. Added to this there was now personal injury and the prey was out of reach. Impotence for revenge burned into the soul of him like a corrosive poison. Oh, let him but come within his grip again and he should not escape so easily.
Sits the wind still in that quarter?
The burthen droned in his head, angry conclusion to each long spell of inconclusive thought, as he still paced the garden, till the noon hour began to wane. And it was in this mood, that, at length, returning to his study, he crossed in one of the back passages a young woman enveloped in a brilliant scarlet and black shawl, who started in evident dismay on being confronted with him.
Rupert knew by sight and name every wench of kitchen and laundry, as well as every one of the buxom lasses or dames whom business brought periodically to the great hall. That this person was neither of the household nor one of the usual back-door visitors, he would have seen at a glance, even had not her own embarrassment drawn his closer attention. He looked keenly and recognised the gatekeeper's daughter Moggie.
Having married Sir Adrian's servant and withdrawn to take up her abode in the camp of the enemy, so to speak, she was not one whom Mr. Landale would have regarded with favour in any case; but now, concentrating his thoughts from their aimless whirl of dissatisfaction upon the present encounter, he was struck by the woman's manner.
Yes, she was most undoubtedly frightened. He examined her with a malevolent eye which still discountenanced her. And, though he made no inquiry, she forthwith stammered out: "I—I came, sir, to see if there be news of her Ladyship ... or of Sir Adrian, sir—Renny can't leave the island, you know, and he be downright anxious."
"Well, my good woman, calm yourself. Nothing wrong; nothing to hide in this very laudable anxiety of you and your good man! No, we have no news yet—that is quickly told, Mrs. Potter."
He kept her for a moment quailing and scared under his cruel gaze, then went on his way, working upon the new problems she had brought him to solve. No matter was too small for Rupert's mind, he knew how inextricably the most minute and apparently insignificant may be connected with the most important events of life.
The woman was singularly anxious to explain, reflected he, pausing at his chamber door, singularly ready with her explanation—too ready. She must have lied. No doubt she lied. Liar was written upon every line of the terrified face of her. What was that infernal little French husband of hers hatching now? He had been in the Smith plot, of course. Ah, curse that smuggling fellow: he cropped up still on every side! Pray the fates he would crop up once too often for his own safety yet; who knew!
Meanwhile Mrs. Potter, the innocent news-gatherer, must not be allowed to roam unwatched at her own sweet will about the place. Hark! what clumping, creaking, steps! These could only be produced by Rene's fairy-footed spouse: the house servants had been too well drilled by his irritable ear to venture in such shoe leather within its range. He closed his door, and gently walked back along the corridor.
As he passed Molly's apartment, he could hear the creaking of a wardrobe door; and, a startling surmise springing into his brain, he quietly slipped into an opposite room and waited, leaving the door slightly ajar.
As he expected, a few minutes later, Moggie re-appeared loaded with a bulky parcel, glancing anxiously right and left. She tiptoed by him; but, after a few steps, suddenly turning her head once more, met his eyes grimly fixed upon her through the narrow aperture. With a faint squeal she paddled off as though a fiend were at her heels.
"Something more than anxiety for news there, Mrs. Potter," said Mr. Landale, apostrophising the retreating figure with a malignant, inward laugh! Then, when the last echo of her stout boots had faded away, he entered his sister-in-law's room, looked around and meditatively began to open various presses and drawers. "You visited this one at any rate, my girl," thought he, as he recognised the special sound of the hinges. "And, for a lady's maid, you have left it in singular disorder. As for this," pulling open a linen drawer half-emptied, and showing dainty feminine apparel, beribboned and belaced, in the most utter disorder—"why, fie on you, Mrs. Potter! Is this the way to treat these pretty things?"
He had seen enough. He paused a moment in the middle of the room with his nails to his lips, smiling to himself.
"Ah, Mrs. Potter, I fancy you might have given us a little news, yourself! Most unkind of my Lady Landale to prefer to keep us in this unnatural anxiety—most unkind indeed! She must have singularly good reasons for so doing.... Captain Smith, my friend, Mr. Cochrane, or whatever may be your name, we have an account to settle. And there is that fool of an Adrian scurrying over the seas in search of his runaway wife! By George! my hand is not played out yet!"
Slowly he repaired to his study. There he sat down and wrote, without any further reflection, an urgent letter to the chief officer of the newly established Preventive Service Station. Then he rang the bell.
"One of the grooms will ride at once to Lancaster with this," he said to the servant, looking at the missive in his hand. But instead of delivering it he paused: a new idea had occurred. How many of these servants might not be leagued in favour of that interloper, bribed, or knowing him, perhaps, to have been a friend of Sir Adrian, or yet again out of sheer spite to himself? No; he would leave no loop-hole for treachery now.
"Send the groom to me as soon as he is ready," he continued, and when the footman had withdrawn, enclosed the letter, with its tale-telling superscription, in another directed to a local firm of attorneys, with a covering note instructing them to see that the communication, on His Majesty's Service, should reach the proper hands without delay.
When the messenger had set forth, Mr. Landale, on his side, had his horse saddled and sallied out in the direction of Scarthey sands.
As from the top of the bluff he took a survey of the great bay, a couple of figures crossing the strand in the distance arrested his attention; he reined in his horse behind a clump of bushes and watched.
"So ho! Mrs. Potter, your careful husband could not leave the island?" muttered he, as he marked the unmistakable squat figure of the one, a man carrying a burden upon his shoulder, whilst, enveloping the woman who walked briskly by his side, flared the brilliant-hued shawl of Moggie. "That lie alone would have been sufficient to arouse suspicion. Hallo, what is the damned crapaud up to?"
The question was suggested by the man's movements, as, after returning the parcel to his consort at the beginning of the now bare causeway, he turned tail, while she trudged forward alone.
"The Shearman's house! I thought as much. Out he comes again, and not by himself. I have made acquaintance with those small bare legs before. I should have been astonished indeed if none of the Shearman fellows had been mixed up with the affair. I shall be even yet with those creditable friends of yours, brother Adrian. So, it's you again, Johnny, my lad; the pretty Mercury.... Can it be possible that Captain Smith is at his old games once more?"
Mr. Landale's eyes shone with a curious eager light; he laughed a little mirthless laugh, which was neither pleasant to hear nor to give. "Dear me," he said aloud, as he watched the pair tramp together towards Scarthey, "for plotters in the dark, you are particularly easy to detect, my good friends!"
Then he checked himself, realising what a mere chance it had been, after all—a fortuitous meeting in the passage—that had first aroused his suspicions, and placed between his fingers the end of the thread he now thought it so simple to follow up. But he did hold the thread, and depended no longer upon chance or guess-work, but on his own relentless purpose to lay the plotters by the heels, whatever their plot might be.
In the course of an hour and a half, Johnny Shearman, whistling, light-hearted, and alone, was nearing his native house once more, when the sight of a horseman, rapidly advancing across the sands, brought him to a standstill, to stare with a boy's curiosity. Presently, however, recognising Mr. Landale—a person for whom he had more dread than admiration—he was starting off homeward again at a brisk canter, when a stern hail from the rider arrested him.
"Johnny!" The boy debated a moment, measured the distance between the cottage and himself, and shrewdly recognised the advisability of obeying. "Johnny, my boy, I want you at the Hall; take hold of my stirrup, and come along with me."
The boy, with every symptom of reluctance, demurred, pleading a promise to return to his mother. Then he suddenly perceived a look in the gentleman's eye, which gave him a frantic, unreasoned desire to bolt at once, and at any cost. But the horseman anticipated the thought; bending in the saddle, he reached out his arm and seized the urchin by the collar.
"Why, you little devil, what is the matter with you?" he asked, grinning ominously into the chubby, terrified face. "It strikes me it is time you and I should come to a little understanding. Any more letters from the smuggler to-day, eh? Ah, would you, you young idiot!" and Mr. Landale's fingers gave a sudden twist to the collar, which strangled the rising yell. "Listen, Johnny," tightening his grasp gradually until the brown face grew scarlet, then purple, and the goggling eyes seemed to start out of their sockets; "that is what it feels like to be hanged. They squeeze your neck so; and they leave you dangling at the end of a rope till you are dead, dead, dead, and the crows come and eat you. Do you want to be hanged?"
For some moments more he kept the writhing lad under the torture; then loosening his grip, without however relinquishing his hold, allowed him to taste once more the living air.
"Do you want to be hanged, Johnny Shearman?" he asked again gravely. The lad burst into gasping sobs, and looked up at his captor with an agony of fear in his bloodshot eyes. "No," continued Mr. Landale, "I am sure you don't, eh?" with a renewed ominous contraction of the hand. "It's a fearful thing, is hanging. And yet many a lad, hardly older than you, has been hanged for less than you are doing. Magistrates can get people hanged, and I am a magistrate, you know. Stop that noise!"
"Now," continued the gentleman, "there are one or two little things I want to know myself, Johnny, and it's just possible I might let you off for this time if by chance you were able to tell them to me. So, for your sake, I hope you may be."
He could see that the boy's mind was now completely turned with fright.
"If you were to try to run away again I should know you had secrets to keep from me, and then, Johnny Shearman, it would go hard with you indeed! Now come along beside me, up to the Hall."
Quite certain of his prey, he released him, and, setting his horse to a trot, smiled to note the desperate clutch of the lad upon his stirrup leather, as, with the perspiration dripping from his face, and panting breath, he struggled to keep up the pace alongside.
Marched with tremendous ceremony into the magistrate's study and directed to stand right opposite the light, while Mr. Landale installed himself in an arm-chair with a blood-curdling air of judicial sternness, Johnny Shearman, at most times as dare-devil a pickle of a boy as ever ran, but now reduced to a state of mental and physical jelly, underwent a terrible cross-examination. It was comparatively little that he had to say, and no doubt he wished most fervently he had greater revelations to make, and could thus propitiate the arbiter of the appalling fate he firmly believed might lie in store for him. Meagre as his narrative was, however, it quite sufficed for Mr. Landale.
"I think, Johnny," he said more pleasantly, well knowing the inducement that a sudden relaxation from fear offers to a witness's garrulity, "I think I may say you will not hang this time—that is," with a sudden hardening of his voice, and making a great show of checking the answers with pen and ink in his most magisterial manner, "that is if you have really told me all you know and it be all true. Now let us see, and take care. You saw no one at the peel to-day but Renny Potter, Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Crackenshaw?"
"But you heard other voices in the next room—a man's voice—whilst you were waiting?"
"Then Renny Potter came back and gave you a message for your brothers. This message they made you repeat, over and over again. How did it go?" And as Mr. Landale frowningly looked at his paper, the boy tremblingly repeated:
"I mun tell brothers Will an' Rob, that one or t'other mun watchen the light o' nights, to-night, to-morrow night, an' ontil woord coom again. If light go out they mun setten forth in they ketch thot moment, fettled op for a two-three days' sailing. If wind is contrairy like, they mun take sweeps. This for the master's service—for Sir Adrian's service!"—amending the phrase with a sharp reading of the blackness of Mr. Landale's swift upward look.
"Yes," murmured the latter after a pause. "And you were to tell no one else. You were to keep it above all from getting to my ears. Very good, Johnny. If you have spoken the truth, you are safe."
There was a special cell, off the official study, with high windows, bolts and bars, and a wooden bench, for the temporary housing of such desperate criminals as might be brought to the judgment of Rupert Landale, Esquire, J.P. There he now disposed of the young offender who snivelled piteously once more; and having locked the door and pocketed the key, returned to his capacious arm-chair, where, as the twilight waned over the land, he fell to co-ordinating his scheme and gloating upon this unexpected turn of Fortune's wheel.
* * * * *
At that hour Madeleine, alone in her chamber, knelt before her little altar, wrestling with the rebellion of her soul and besieging the heavens with a cry for peace.
* * * * *
Sir Adrian having failed to hear aught of the Peregrine at St. Malo, filled with harassing doubt about its fate but clutching still at hope—as men will, even such pessimists as he—stood on the deck of his homeward bound ship, straining his eyes in the dusk for the coast line.
* * * * *
In the peel, the beacon had just been lighted by Rene, in whose company, up in his secluded turret, sat Captain Jack, smoking a pipe, but so unusually silent as to have reduced even the loquacious Frenchman to silence too. Below them Lady Landale, torn between the dread of a final separation from the loadstar of her existence and the gnawing anxiety roused in her bosom by Moggie's account of Mr. Landale's watchfulness, was pacing the long book-lined room with the restlessness of a caged panther.
* * * * *
On the road from Lancaster to Pulwick a posse of riding officers and a carriage full of hastily gathered preventive men were trotting on their way to the Priory.
THE LIGHT GOES OUT
The light of Scarthey had not been shining for quite an hour over the wilderness, when Lady Landale, suddenly breaking the chain of her restless tramp, ran to the door and called for Moggie.
There was so shrill a tone of anguish in the summons that the young woman rushed into the room in trembling expectancy: yet it was to find her mistress alone and the place undisturbed.
"Moggie," said Lady Landale, panting and pressing her hands upon her side as if in the endeavour to control the beating of her heart, "something is going to happen; I know it, I feel it! Tell Captain Smith that I must speak to him, here, at once."
Infected by the terror upon her mistress's face, Madame Lapotre flew upon her errand; a moment later, Captain Jack entered the room and stood before Lady Landale with a look of impatient inquiry.
"Oh, it is wicked, it is mad!" cried she passionately; "it is tempting God to remain here!"
"Of whom are you speaking?" he asked, with an involuntary glance of contempt at the distracted figure. "If it is of yourself, I entirely concur. How often these last days, and how earnestly have I not begged of you to return to Pulwick? Was not the situation you placed me in with regard to Adrian already odious enough that it needed this added folly? Oh, I know—I know what you would say: spare it me. My safety? You fear for me? Ah, Lady Landale, that you could have but left me in peace!"
He had waxed hot with anger from his first would-be calmness, as he spoke. This dismal life of close but inharmonious proximity, started upon the seas and continued under his absent friend's own roof had tried his impetuous temper to the utmost. Upon the morrow of their return he had, indeed, exercised all his powers of persuasion to induce Lady Landale to proceed to the Priory; but, impelled by her frantic dread of the separation, and entrenching herself behind the argument that her mysterious re-appearance would awaken suspicion where people would otherwise believe the Peregrine still in foreign parts, she had declared her irrevocable determination not to quit the island until she knew him to be safe. And he had remained, actuated by the dual desire, first to exonerate himself personally in her husband's eyes from any possible suspicion of complicity in Molly's flight—the bare thought of which had become a horrible torment to him—then to encompass through that good friend's means an interview and full explanation with Madeleine, which not only the most ordinary precaution for his life, but likewise every instinct of pride forbade him now to seek himself.
Thus began a state of affairs which, as the days succeeded each other without news of Sir Adrian, became every moment more intolerable to his loyalty. The inaction, the solitary hours of reflection; the maddening feeling of unavailing proximity to his heart's dearest, of impotency against the involving meshes of the present false and hateful position; all this had brought into the young man's soul a fever of anger, which, as fevers will, consumed him the more fiercely because of his vigour and strength.
It was with undisguised hatred and with scorn immeasurable that he now surveyed the woman who had degraded him in his own eyes. At another time Molly might have yielded before his resentment, but at this hour her whole being was encompassed by a single thought.
"It is for you—for you!" she repeated with ashen lips; "you must go before it is too late."
"And is it not too late?" stormed he. "Too late, indeed, do I see my treachery to Adrian, my more than brother! Upon my ship I could not avoid your company, but here—Oh, I should have thought of him and not of myself, and done as my honour bade me! You are right; since you would not go, I should have done so. It was weak; it was mad; worse, worse—dishonourable!"
But she had no ears for his reproaches, no power to feel the wounds he dealt her woman's heart with such relentless hand.
"Then you will go," she cried. "Tell Rene, the signal."
He started and looked at her with a different expression.
"Have you heard anything; has anything happened?" he asked, recovering self-restraint at the thought of danger.
"Not yet," she replied, "not yet, but it is coming."
Her look and voice were so charged with tragic force that for the moment he was impressed, and, brave man though he was, felt a little cold thrill run down his spine. She continued, in accents of the most piercing misery:
"And it will have been through me—it will have been through me! Oh, in mercy let me make the signal! Say you will go to-night."
"I will go."
There followed a little pause of breathless silence between them. Then as, without speaking, he would have turned away, a loud, peremptory knock resounded upon the door of the keep and echoed and re-echoed with lugubrious reverberation through the old stone passages around them.
At first, terror-stricken, her tongue clave to her palate, her feet were rooted to the ground; then with a scream she flung herself upon him and would have dragged him towards the door.
"They have come—hide—hide!"
He threw up his head to listen, while he strove to disengage himself. The blood had leaped to his cheek, and fire to his eye. "And if it be Adrian?" he cried.
Another knock thundered through the still air.
"It is but one man," cried Rene from his tower down the stairs. "You may open, Moggie."
"No—no," screamed Molly beside herself, and tighter clasped her arms round Captain Jack's neck.
"Adrian, it is Adrian!" said he. "Hush, Madam, let me go! Would you make the breach between me and my friend irreparable?"
Both his hands were on her wrists in the vain endeavour to disengage himself from her frenzied grip; the door was flung open and Rupert Landale stood in the opening, and looked in upon them.
"Damnation!" muttered Jack between his teeth and flung her from him, stamping his foot.
Rupert gazed from one to the other; from the woman, who, haggard and dishevelled, now turned like a fury upon him, to the sailor's fierce erect figure. Then he closed the door with an air of grave deliberation.
"What do you want?" demanded Molly—"you have come here for no good purpose. What do you want?"
As she spoke she strove to place herself between the two men.
"I came, my dear sister-in-law," said Rupert in his coldest, most incisive voice, "to learn why, since you have come back from your little trip, you choose to remain in the ruins rather than return to your own house and family. The reason is clear to see now. My poor brother!"
The revulsion of disappointment had added to the wrath which the very sight of Rupert Landale aroused in Jack Smith's blood; this insinuation was the culminating injury. He took a step forward.
"Have a care, sir," he exclaimed, "how you outrage in my presence the wife of my best friend! Have a care—I am not in such a hurry to leave you as when last we met!"
Mr. Landale raised his eyebrows, and again sent a look from Molly back to the sailor, the insolence of which lashed beyond all control the devils in the sailor's soul.
"We have an account to settle, it seems to me, Mr. Landale," said he, taking another step forward and slightly stooping his head to look the other in the eye. Crimson fury was in his own. "I doubt much whether it was quite wise of you, assuming that you expected to find me here, to have come without that pistolling retinue with which you provided yourself last time."
Rupert smiled and crossed his arms. Cowardice was no part of his character. He had come in advance of his blood-hounds, in part to assure himself of the correctness of his surmises, but also to feast upon the discomfiture of this man and this woman whom he hated. To have found them together, and thus, had been an unforeseen and delicious addition to his dish of vengeance, and he would linger over it while he could.
"Well, Captain Smith, and about this account? Lady Landale, I beg of you, be silent. You have brought sufficient disgrace upon our name as it is. Nay, sir," raising his voice, "it is useless to shake your head at me in this furious style; nothing can alter facts. I saw. Who has an account to demand then—you, whose life is already forfeit for an accumulation of crimes; you, screened by a conspiracy of bribed servants and ... your best friend's wife, as you dare call your paramour; or I, in my brother's absence the natural guardian of his family, of his honour? But I am too late. One sister I saved from the ignominy you would have brought upon her. The other I could not save."
With a roar Jack Smith would have sprung at the speaker; but, once more, his friend's wife rushed between.
"Let him speak," she cried, "what matter what he says? But you—remember your promise. I will make the signal."
The signal! The mask of Rupert's face, sternly and sadly rebuking, was not proof against the exquisite aptness of this proposal. His men outside were waiting for the signal, surrounding the island from land and seaward, (for the prey was not to be allowed to escape them again); but how to make it without creating suspicion had not yet suggested itself to his fertile brain. Now, while he held her lover in play, Molly would herself deliver him to justice. Excellent, excellent! Truly life held some delightful jokes for the man of humour!
The light of triumph came and went upon his countenance like a flash, but when the life hangs upon the decision of a moment the wits become abnormally sharp. Jack Smith saw it, halted upon his second headlong onslaught, and turned round.—Too late: Molly was gone. He brought his gaze back upon his enemy and saw he had been trapped.
Their gleams met like duelling blades, divining each other's purpose with the rapidity of thrust answering thrust. Both made a leap for the door. But Rupert was nearest; he first had his hand on the key and turned it, and, with newly-born genius of fight, suddenly begotten of his hatred, quickly stooped, eluded the advancing grasp, was free for one second, and sent the key crashing through the window into the darkness of the night.
Baffled by the astounding swiftness of the act, the sailor, wheeling round, had already raised his fist to crush his feebler foe, when, in the midst of his fury, a glimmer of the all-importance of every second of time stayed his hand. He threw himself upon the heavy ladder that rested against Sir Adrian's rows of books, and, clasping it by the middle, swung it above his head. The battering blow would, no doubt, have burst panel, lock, and hinges the next instant, but again Rupert forestalled him, and charged him before the door could be reached.
Overbalanced by the weight he held aloft, Captain Jack was hurled down headlong beneath the ladder, and lay for a moment stunned by the violence of the fall.
When the clouds cleared away it was to let him see Rupert's face bending over him, his pale lips wreathed into a smile of malignant exultation.
"Caught!" said Mr. Landale, slowly, pausing over each word as though to prolong the savour of it in his mouth, "caught this time! And it is your mistress's hand that puts the noose round your neck. That is what I call poetical justice."
The prostrate man, collecting his scattered wits and his vast strength, made a violent effort to spring to his feet. But Rupert's whole weight was upon him, his long thin fingers were gripping him by each shoulder, his face grinned at him, close, detested, infuriating. The grasp that held him seemed to belong to no flesh and blood, it was as the grasp of skeleton hands, the grinning face became like a death's head.
"I shall come to your hanging, Captain Jack Smith, or rather, Mr. Hubert Cochrane of the Shaws."
These were the last words of Rupert Landale. A red whirl passed through the sailor's brain, his hands fell like lashes round the other's neck and drew it down. If Hubert Cochrane dies so does Rupert Landale: that throat shall never give sound to that name again.
Over and over they roll like savage beasts, but yet in deathly silence. For the pressure of the fingers on his gullet, fingers that seem to gain fresh strength every moment and pierce into his very flesh, will not allow even a sigh to pass Rupert's lips, and Jack can spare no atom of his energy from the fury of fight: not one to spare even for the hearing of the frantic knocks at the door, the calls, the hammering at the lock, the desperate efforts without to prise it open.
But if Rupert Landale must die so shall Hubert Cochrane, and by the hangman's hand, treble doomed by this. The same thought fills both these men's heads; the devil of murder has possession of both their souls. But, true to himself to the last, it is with Rupert a calculating devil. The officers must soon be here: he will hold the scoundrel yet with the grasp of death, and his enemy shall be found red-handed—red-handed!
His hatred, his determination of vengeance, the very agony of the unequal struggle for life gave him a power that is almost a match for the young athlete in his frenzy.
The dying efforts of his victim tax Jack's strength more than the living fight; but his hands are still locked in their fatal clutch when at last, with one fearful and spasmodic jerk, Rupert Landale falls motionless. Then exhaustion enwraps the conqueror also, like a mantle. He, too, lies motionless with his cheek on the floor, face to face with the corpse, dimly conscious of the voluptuousness of victory. But the dead grasp still holds him by the wrists, and it grows cold now, and rigid upon them. It is as if they were fettered with iron.
* * * * *
Lady Landale's dread of her once despised kinsman, now that she knew what a powerful weapon he held in his hands, this night, was almost fantastic.
As she darted from the room, she fell against Rene, who, with a white face and bent ear, stood at the door, eavesdropping, ready to rush to the help of Sir Adrian's friend upon the first hint of necessity. But he had heard more than he bargained for.
The scared, well-nigh agonised look of inquiry with which he turned to his mistress was lost upon her. In her whirlwind exit, she seized upon him and dragged him with her to the ladder that led to the tower.
"Quick, Rene, the signal!"
And with the birdlike swiftness of a dream flight she was up the steps before him.
Panting in her wake, ran the sturdy fellow, his brain seething in a chaos of conflicting thought. Mr. the Captain must be helped, must be saved: this one thing was clear at any rate. His honour would wish it so—no matter what had happened. Yes, he would obey My Lady and make the signal. But, what if Mr. Landale were right? Not indeed in his accusation of Mr. the Captain, Rene knew, Rene had seen enough to trust him: he was no false friend; but as regarded My Lady? Alas! My Lady had indeed been strange in her manner these days; and even Moggie, as he minded him now, even Moggie had noticed, had hinted, and he had not understood.
The man's fingers fumbled over the catch of the great lantern, he shook as if he had the palsy. Goodness divine, if his master were to come home to this!
Impatiently Lady Landale pushed him upon one side. What ailed the fellow, when every second was crucial, life or death bringing? Medusa-like for one second her face hung, white-illumined, set into terrible fixity, above the great flame, the next instant all was blackness to their dazzled eyes. The light of Scarthey was out!
She groped for Rene; her hot fingers burnt upon his cold rough hand for a second.
"I will go down to the sands," she said, whispering as if she feared, even here, the keenness of Rupert's ear, "and you—hurry to him, stop with him, defend him, your master's friend!"
She flitted from him like a shadow, the ladder creaked faintly beneath her light footfall, and then louder beneath his weighty tread.
His master's friend!
Ay, he would stand by him, for his master's sake and for his own sake too—the good gentleman!—And they would get him safe out of the way before his honour's return.
* * * * *
Out upon the beach ran Molly.
It was a mild still night; through veils of light mist the moon shone with a tranquil bride-like grace upon the heaving palpitating waters and the mystery of the silent land.
A very night for lovers, it seemed; for sweet meetings and sweeter partings; a night that mocked with its great passionless calm at the wild anguish of this woman's impatience. Yet a night upon which sound travelled far. She bent her ear—was there nothing to hear yet, nothing but the lap of the restless waters? Were those men false?
She rushed to and fro, from one point to another along the sands in a delirium of impotent desire.
Oh, hurry, hurry, hurry!
And as she turned again, there, upon the waters out in the offing, glimmered a light, curtseying with the swell of the waves; the sails of a ship caught the moonbeams. She could see the vessel plainly and that it was bearing full for the island. Alas! This might scarcely be the little Shearman boat manned by two fishermen only; even she, unversed in sea knowledge could tell that. It was as large as the Peregrine itself—certainly as large as the cutter.
She caught her breath, and clapped her hands to her lips to choke down the wild scream of fear that rose to them.
At the same instant, a dull thud of oars, a subdued murmur of a deep voice rose from the other side of the island.
They were coming, coming from the landward, these rescuers of her beloved. And yonder, with swelling canvas, came the hell ship from out the open sea, sent by Rupert's infernal malice and cleverness, to make their help of no avail; to seize him, in the very act of flight.
She ran in the direction of the sound, and with all her strength called upon the new-comers to speed.
"Here—here, for God's sake! Hasten or it will be too late!"
Her voice seemed to her, in the midst of the endless space, weak as a child's; but it was heard.
"Coming!" answered a gruff shout from afar. And the oar beat came closer, and fell with swifter rhythm. Stumbling, catching in her skirts, careless of pool or stone beneath her little slippered feet, Lady Landale came flying round the ruins: a couple of boats crashed in upon the shingle, and the whole night seemed suddenly to become alive with dark figures—men in uniform, with gleams upon them of brass badges and shining belts, and in their hands the gleam of arms.
For the moment she could not move. It was as if her knees were giving way, and she must fall.
None of them saw her in the shadow; but as they passed, she heard them talking to each other about the signal, the signal which they had been told to look for, which had been brought to them ... the signal she had made. Then with a wave of rage, the power of life returned to her. This was Rupert's work! But all was not lost yet. The other boat was coming, the other boat must be the rescue after all; the Shearman's boat, or—who knows?—if there was mercy in Heaven, the Peregrine, whose crew might have heard of their captain's risk.
Back she raced to the seaward beach, hurling—unknowing that she spoke at all—invectives upon her husband's brother.
"Serpent, blood-hound, devil, devil, you shall not have him!"
As she reached the landing-place, breathless, a boat was landing in very truth. Even as she came up a tall figure jumped out upon the sand, and crunched towards her with great strides.
She made a leap forward, halted, and cried out shrilly:
"Molly—wife! Thank God!" His arms were stretched out to her, but he saw her waver and shudder from him, and wring her hands. "My God, what has happened? The light out, too! What is it?"
She fastened on him with a sudden fierceness, the spring of a wild cat.
"Come," she said, drawing him towards the peel, "if you would save him, lose not a second."
He hesitated a moment, still; she tugged at him like one demented, panting her abjurations at him, though her voice was failing her. Then, without a word, he fell to running with her towards the keep, supporting her as they went.
The great door had swung back on its hinges, and the men were pressing, in a dark body, into the dim-lit recesses, when Sir Adrian and his wife reached the entrance.
The sight of the uniforms only confirmed the homecomer in his own forebodings anent the first act of the drama that was being enacted upon his peaceful island. He needed no further pushing from the frantic woman at his side. Lost in bringing her back, perhaps, his only friend! Lost by his loyalty and his true friendship!
They dashed up the stone stairs just as the locked door of the living-room burst with a crash, under the efforts of many stalwart shoulders; they saw the men crush forwards, and fall back, and herd on again, with a hoarse murmur that leaped from mouth to mouth.
And Rene came running out from the throng with the face of one that has seen Death. And he caught his mistress by the arm, and held her by main force against the wall. He showed no surprise at the sight of his master—there are moments in life that are beyond surprise—but cried wildly:
"She must not see!"
She fought like a tigress against the faithful arms, but still they held her, and Sir Adrian went in alone.
A couple of men were dragging Captain Jack to his feet, forcing his hands from the dead man's throat; it seemed as if they had grown as rigid and paralysed in their clasp like the corpse hands that had now, likewise, to be wrenched from their clutch of him.
He glanced around, as though dazed, then down at the disfigured purple face of his dead enemy, smiled and held out his hands stiffly for the gyves that were snapped upon them.
And then one of the fellows, with some instinctive feeling of decency, flung a coat over the slain man, and Captain Jack threw up his head and met Adrian's horror-stricken, sorrowful eyes.
At the unexpected sight he grew scarlet; he waved his fettered hands at him as they hustled him forth.
"I have killed your brother, Adrian," he called out in a loud voice, "but I brought back your wife!"
Some of the men were speaking to Sir Adrian, but drew back respectfully before the spectacle of his wordless agony.
But, as Molly, with a shriek, would have flung herself after the prisoner, her husband awoke to action, and, pushing Rene aside, caught her round the waist with an unyielding grip: his eyes sought her face. And, as the light fell on it, he understood. Aye, she had been brought back to him. But how?
And Rene, watching his master's countenance, suddenly burst out blubbering, like a child.
HUSBAND AND WIFE
Tout comprendre— c'est tout pardonner.
Staring straight before her with haggard, unseeing eyes, her hands clasped till the delicate bones protruded, her young face lined into sudden agedness, grey with unnatural pallor, framed by the black masses of her dishevelled hair, it was thus Sir Adrian found his wife, when at length he was free to seek her.
He and Rene had laid the dead man upon the bed that had been occupied by his murderer, and composed as decently as might be the hideous corpse of him who had been the handsomest of his race. Rene had given his master the tale of all he knew himself, and Sir Adrian had ordered the boat to be prepared, determined to convey Lady Landale at once from the scene of so much horror. His own return to Pulwick, moreover, to break the news to Sophia, to attend to the removal of the body and the preparation for the funeral was of immediate necessity.
As he approached his wife she raised her eyes.
"What do you want with me?" she asked, with a stony look that arrested him, as he would gently have taken her hand.
"I would bring you home."
"Home!" the pale lips writhed in withering derision.
"Yes, home, Molly," he spoke as one might to a much-loved and unreasonable sick child—with infinite tenderness and compassion—"your own warm home, with your sister. You would like to go to Madeleine, would not you?"
She unclasped her hands and threw them out before her with a savage gesture of repulsion.
"To Madeleine?" she echoed, with an angry cry; and then wheeling round upon him fiercely: "Do you want to kill me?" she said, between her set teeth.
Sir Adrian's weary brow contracted. He paused and looked at her with profoundest sorrow.
Then she asked, hoarsely:
"Where have they taken him to?"
"To Lancaster, I believe."
"Will they hang him?"
"I pray God not."
"There is no use of praying to God, God is merciless. What will they do to him?"
"He will be tried, Molly, in due course, and then, according to the sentence of the judges.... My poor child, control yourself, he shall be defended by the best lawyers that money can get. All a man can do for another I shall do for him."
She shot the sombre fire of her glance at him.
"You know that I love him," she said, with a terrible composure.
A sudden whiteness spread round Sir Adrian's lips.
"Poor child!" he said again beneath his breath.
"Yes, I love him. I always wanted to see him. I was sick and tired of life at Pulwick, and that was why I went on board his ship. I went deliberately because I could not bear the dulness of it all. He mistook me for Madeleine in the dark—he kissed me. Afterwards I told him that I loved him. I begged him to take me away with him, for ever. I love him still, I would go with him still—it is as well that you should know. Nothing can alter it now. But he did not want me. He loves Madeleine."
The words fell from her lips with a steady, cruel, deliberateness. She kept her eyes upon him as she spoke, unpityingly, uncaring what anguish she inflicted; nay, it seemed from some strange perversity, glad to make him suffer.
But hard upon a man as it must be to hear such a confession from his wife's lips, doubly hard to such a one as Adrian, whose heart bled for her pain as well as for his own, he held himself without departing for a second from his wonted quiet dignity. Only in his earnest gaze upon her there was perhaps, if possible, an added tenderness.
But she, to see him so unmoved, was moved herself to a sudden scorn.
What manner of man was this, that not love, nor jealousy, nor anger had power to stir?
"And now what will you do with me?" she asked him again, with superb contempt on eye and lip. "For a guilty wife I am to you, as far as the will could make me, and I have no claim upon you any more."
"No claim upon me!" he repeated, with a wonder of grief in his voice. "Ah, Molly, hush child! You are my wife. The child of the woman I loved—the woman I love for her own sake. You can no more put yourself out of my life now than you can out of my heart; had you been as guilty in deed as you may have been in purpose my words would be the same. Your husband's home is your home, my only wish to cherish and shelter you. You cannot escape my care, poor child, and some day you may be glad of it. My protection, my countenance you will always have. God! who am I that I should judge you? Is there any sin of human frailty that a human being dare condemn? Guilty? What is your guilt compared to mine for bringing you to this, allying my melancholy age with your bright youth?"
He fell into the chair opposite to her and covered his face with his hands. As, for a minute's space, his self-control wavered, she watched him, wearily. Her heat of temper had fallen from her very quickly; she broke into a moan.
"Oh, what does it matter? What does anything matter now? I love him and I have ruined him—had it not been for me he would be safe!"
After a little silence Sir Adrian rose. "I must leave you now, I must go to Pulwick," he said. His heart was yearning to her, he would have gathered her to his arms as a father his erring child, but he refrained from even touching her. "And you—what would you do? It shall be as you like."
"I would go to Lancaster," she said.
"The carriage shall be sent for you in the morning and Renny and his wife shall go with you. I will see to it. After Rupert's funeral—my God, what a night this has been!—I will join you, and together we shall work to save his life."
He paused, hesitated, and was about to turn away when suddenly she caught his hand and kissed it.
He knew she would as readily have kissed Rene's hand for a like promise; that her gratitude was a pitiable thing for him, her husband, to bear; and yet, all the way, on his sad and solitary journey to Pulwick, the touch of her lips went with him, bringing a strange sweetness to his heart.
* * * * *
There was a vast deal of wonder in the county generally, and among the old friends of his father's house in particular, when it became known that Sir Adrian Landale had engaged a noted counsel to defend his brother's murderer and was doing all he could to avert his probable doom. In lowered tones were whispered strange tales of Lady Landale's escapade. People wagged wise and virtuous heads and breathed scandalous hints of her power upon her infatuated husband; and then they would tap their foreheads significantly. Indeed it needed all the master of Pulwick's wide-spread reputation for mental unsoundness to enable him to carry through such proceedings without rousing more violent feelings. As it was, it is to be doubted whether his interference had any other effect than that of helping to inflame the public mind against the prisoner.
The jury's verdict was a foregone conclusion; and though the learned lawyer duly prepared a very fine speech and pocketed some monstrous fees with a great deal of complaisance, he was honest enough not to hold out the smallest hope of being able to save his client.
The conviction was too clear, the "crimes" the prisoner had committed were of "too horrible and bloody a character, threatening the very foundations of society," to admit of a merciful view of the case.
As the trial drew near, Sir Adrian's despondency increased; each day seemed to bring a heavier furrow to his brow, an added weight to his lagging steps. He avoided as much as possible all meetings with his wife, who, on the contrary, recovered stronger courage with the flight of time, but whose feverish interest in his exertions was now transferred to some secret plans that she was for ever discussing with Rene. The prisoner himself showed great calmness.
"They will sentence me of course," he said quietly to Adrian, "but whether they will hang me is another question. I don't think that my hour has come yet or that the cord is twisted which will hang Jack Smith."
In other moods, he would ridicule Sir Adrian's labours in his cause with the most gentle note of affectionate mockery. But, from the desire doubtless to save one so disinterested and unworldly from any accusation of complicity, he was silent upon the schemes on which he pinned his hopes of escape.
The first meeting of the friends after the scene at Scarthey had been, of course, painful to both.
When he entered the cell, Adrian had stretched out his hand in silence, but Captain Jack held his own pressed to his side.
"It is like you to come," he said gloomily, "but you cannot shake the hand that stifled your brother's life out of him. And I should do it again, Adrian! Mark you, I am not repentant!"
"Give me your hand, Jack," said Adrian steadfastly. "I am not of those who shift responsibility from the dead to the living. You were grievously treated. Oh, give me your hand, friend, can I think of anything now but your peril and your truth to me?"
For an instant still the younger man hesitated and inquiringly raised his eyes laden with anxious trouble, to the elder man's face.
"My wife has told me all," said Sir Adrian, turning his head to hide his twitching lip.
And then Jack Smith's hand leaped out to meet his friend's upon an impulse of warm sympathy, and the two faced each other, looking the words they could not utter.
* * * * *
The year eighteen hundred and fifteen which delivered England at last from the strain of outlandish conflict saw a revival of official activity concerning matters of more homely interest. The powers that were awoke to the necessity, among other things, of putting a stop by the most stringent means to the constant and extensive leakage in the national revenue proceeding from the organisation of free traders or smugglers.
After twenty years of almost complete supineness on the part of the authorities, the first efforts made towards a systematic "Preventive" coast service, composed of customs, excise and naval officials in proportion varied according to the localities, remained singularly futile. And to the notorious inability of these latter to cope with the experience and the devilish daring of the old established free traders, was due no doubt to the ferocity of the inquisitional laws presently levelled against smuggling and smugglers—laws which ruthlessly trenched upon almost every element of the British subjects' vaunted personal freedom, and which added, for the time, several new "hanging cases" to the sixty odd already in existence.
That part of the indictment against Captain Jack Smith and the other criminals still at large, which dealt with their offences against the smuggling act, would in later times have broken down infallibly from want of proper evidence: not a tittle of information was forthcoming which could support examination. But a judge of assizes and a jury in 1815, were not to be baulked of the necessary victim by mere circumstantiality when certain offences against society and against His Majesty had to be avenged; and the dispensers of justice were less concerned with strict evidence than with the desirability of making examples. Strong presumption was all that was required to them to hang their man; and indeed the hanging of Captain Jack upon the other and more serious counts than that of unlawful occupation, was, as has been said, a foregone conclusion. The triple charge of murder being but too fully corroborated.
Every specious argument that could be mooted was of course put forward by counsel for the defence, to show that the death of the preventive men and of Mr. Landale on Scarthey Island and the sinking of the revenue cutter must be looked upon, on the one hand, as simple manslaughter in self-defence, and as the result of accidental collision, on the other. But, as every one anticipated, the charge of the judge and the finding of the jury demanded strenuously the extreme penalty of the law. Besides this the judge deemed it advisable to introduce into the sentence one of those already obsolete penalties of posthumous degradation, devised in coarser ages for the purpose of making an awful impression upon the living.
"Prisoner at the bar," said his lordship at the conclusion of the last day's proceedings, "the sentence of the law which I am about to pass upon you and which the court awards is that you now be taken to the place whence you came, and from thence, on the day appointed, to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, dead, dead. And may God have mercy on your soul!"
Captain Jack, standing bolt upright, with his eyes fixed upon the speaker, calm as he ever had been when awaiting the enemy's broadside, hearkened without stirring a muscle. But when the judge, after pronouncing the last words with a lingering fulness and impressiveness, continued through the heavy silence: "And that, at a subsequent time, your body, bound in irons, shall be suspended upon a gibbet erected as near as possible to the scenes of your successive crimes, and shall there remain as a lasting warning to wrong-doers of the inevitable ultimate end of such an evil life as yours," a wave of crimson flew to the prisoner's forehead, upon which every vein swelled ominously.
He shot a glance of fury at the large flabby countenance of the righteous arbiter of his doom, whilst his hands closed themselves with an involuntary gesture of menace. Then the tide of anger ebbed; a contemptuous smile parted his lips. And, bowing with an air of light mockery to the court, he turned, erect and easy, to follow his turnkey out of the hall.
IN LANCASTER CASTLE
All that his friendship for the condemned man, all that his love and pity for his almost distracted wife, could suggest, Sir Adrian Landale had done in London to try and avert Captain Jack's doom. But it was in vain. There also old stories of his peculiar tenets and of his well-known disaffection to the established order of things, had been raked up against him. Unfavourable comparisons had been drawn between him and Rupert; surprise and disapproval had been expressed at the unnatural brother, who was displaying such energy to obtain mercy for his brother's murderer. Finally an influential personage, whom Sir Adrian had contrived to interest in the case, in memory of an old friendship with his father, informed the baronet that his persistence was viewed with extreme disfavour in the most exalted quarter, and that His Royal Highness himself had pronounced that Captain Jack was a damned rascal and richly deserved his fate.
From the beginning, indeed, the suppliant had been without hope. Though he was resolved to leave no stone unturned, no possibility untried in the effort to save his friend, well-nigh the saddest part of the whole business to him was the realisation that the prisoner had not only broken those custom laws (of which Sir Adrian himself disapproved as arbitrary) but also, as he had been warned, those other laws upon which depend all social order and security; broken them so grievously that, whatever excuses the philosopher might find in heat of blood and stress of circumstances, given laws at all, the sentence could not be pronounced otherwise than just.
And so, with an aching heart and a wider horror than ever of the cruel world of men, and of the injustices to which legal justice leads, Sir Adrian left London to hurry back to Lancaster with all the speed that post-horses could muster. The time was now drawing short. As the traveller rattled along the stony streets of the old Palatine town, and saw the dawn breaking, exquisite, primrose tinted, faintly beautiful as some dream vision over the distant hills, his soul was gripped with an iron clutch. In three more days the gallant heart, breaking in the confinement of the prison yonder, would have throbbed its last! And he longed, with a desire futile but none the less intense, that, according to that doctrine of Vicarious Atonement preached to humanity by the greatest of all examples, he could lay down his own weary and disappointed life for his friend.
Having breakfasted at the hotel, less for the necessity of food than for the sake of passing the time till the morning should have worn to sufficient maturity, he sought on foot the quiet lodgings where he had installed his wife under Rene's guard before starting on his futile quest. Early as the hour still was—seven had but just rung merrily from some chiming church clock—the faithful fellow was already astir and prompt to answer his master's summons.
One look at the latter's countenance was sufficient to confirm the servant's own worst forebodings.
"Ah, your honour, and is it indeed so. Ces gredins! and will they hang so good a gentleman?"
"Hush, Renny, not so loud," cried the other with an anxious look at the folding-doors, that divided the little sitting-room from the inner apartment.
"Oh, his honour need have no fear. My Lady is gone, gone to Pulwick. His honour need not disquiet himself; he can well imagine that I would not allow her to go alone—when I had been given a trust so precious. No, no, the old lady, Miss O'Donoghue, your honour's aunt and her ladyship's, she has heard of all these terrible doings, and came to Lancaster to be with My Lady. Ma foi, I know not if she be just the person one would have chosen, for she has scolded a great deal, and is as agitated—as agitated as a young rabbit. But, after all, she loves the poor young lady with all her heart, and I think she has roused her a little. His honour knows," said the man, flushing to the roots of his hair, whilst he shifted nervously from one foot to another, "that My Lady has been much upset about the poor captain. After his honour went, she would sit, staring out of the window there, just where the street turns up to the castle, and neither ate nor slept, nor talked to speak of. Of course, as I told the old Demoiselle, I knew it was because My Lady had taken it to heart about the signal that she made—thinking to save him—and which only brought the gabelous on him, that his honour's infernal brother (God forgive me, and have mercy on his soul) had set to watch. And My Lady liked to see me coming and going, for she sent me every day to the prison; she did not once go herself."
Sir Adrian drew a long breath. With the most delicate intuition of his master's thoughts, Rene avoided even a glance at him while he continued in as natural a tone as he could assume:
"But the day after the old miss came, she, My Lady, told me to find out if he would see her. He said no; but that the only kindness any one could do him now would be to bring him Mademoiselle Madeleine, and let him speak to her once more. And My Lady, when she heard this, she started off that day with the old one to fetch Mademoiselle herself at Pulwick. And she left me behind, your honour, for I had a little plan there."
Rene faltered and a crestfallen look crept upon his face.
Sir Adrian remembered how before his departure for London his servant had cheerily assured him that Mr. the Captain would be safe out of the country long before he returned, "faith of him, Rene, who had already been in two prisons, and knew their ways, and how to contrive an escape, as his honour well knew." A sad smile parted his lips.
"And so you failed, Renny," he said.
"Ah, your honour, those satanic English turnkeys! With a Frenchman, the job had been done; but it is a bad thing to be in prison in England. His honour can vouch I have some brains. I had made plans—a hundred plans, but there was ever something that did not work. The captain, he too, was eager, as your honour can imagine. My faith, we thought and we thought, and we schemed and contrived, and in the end, there was only one thing to complete our plot—to bribe the jailer. Would your honour believe—it was only that one little difficulty. My Lady had given me a hundred guineas, I had enough money, your honour sees. But the man—I had smoked with him, drunk with him, ay, and made him drunk too, and I thought all was going well, but when I hinted to him what we wanted—Ah! he was a brute—I tell you I had hard work to escape the prison myself, and only for my leaving him with some of the money, I should now be pinched there too. I hardly dare show my face in the place any more. And my poor Lady builds on the hope, and Mr. the Captain—I had to tell him, he took it like an angel. Ah, the poor gentleman! He looked at me so brave and kind! 'I am as grateful, my poor friend, as if you had done it,' said he, 'and perhaps it is all for the best.' All for the best—ah, your honour!"
Rene fairly broke down here, and wept on his sleeve. But Sir Adrian's eyes, circled and worn with watching and thought, shone dry with a far deeper grief, as, a few moments later, he passed along the street towards the walls of the castle.
* * * * *
There was in those days little difficulty in obtaining admission to a condemned prisoner; and, in the rear of the red-headed, good-tempered looking jailer—the same, he surmised, whose sternness in duty had baffled the Breton's simple wiles—he stepped out of the sweet morning sunshine into the long stone passages. The first tainted breath of the prison brought a chill to his blood and oppression to his lungs, and the gloom of the place enveloped him like a pall.
With a rattle of keys a door dismally creaking on its hinges was swung back at last, and the visitor was ushered into the narrow cell, dark for all its whitewashed walls, where Captain Jack was spending his last hours upon earth. The hinges groaned again, the door slammed, and the key once more grated in the lock. Sir Adrian was alone with his friend.
For a moment there was silence; the contraction of the elder man's heart had brought a giddiness to his brain, a dimness of his eyes, through which he was ill able to distinguish anything.
But then there was a clank of fetters—ah, what a sound to connect with lucky Jack Smith, the gayest, freest, and most buoyant of men! And a voice cried:
It had a joyful ring, well-nigh the old hearty tones. It struck Adrian to the soul.
He could have borne, he thought, to find his friend a broken man, changed out of all recognition, crushed by his misfortunes; but to find him the same, a little pale, indeed, and thinner, with a steady earnestness in the sea-blue eyes instead of the old dancing-light, but still gallant and undaunted, still radiating vigorous life and breezy energy by his very presence, this was a cruelty of fate which seemed unendurable.
"I declare," the prisoner had continued, "I declare I thought you were only the incorruptible jailer taking his morning survey. They are desperately careful of me, Adrian, and watch me with maternal solicitude lest I should strangle myself with my chains, these pretty bracelets which I have had to wear ever since poor Renny was found out, or swallow my pillow—dash me! it's small enough—and spoil the pretty show for Saturday! Why, why, Adrian, old friend?"
There was a sudden change of tone to the warmest concern, for Sir Adrian had staggered and would have fallen had not Jack, as nimbly as his fetters would allow him, sprung to support him and conduct him to the bed.
A shaft of light struck through the tiny barred window on to the elder man's face, and showed it against the surrounding darkness deathly white and wet with anguish.
"I have done all I could, Hubert," he murmured, in an extinguished voice, "but to no avail."
"Ay, man, I guessed as much. But never fret for me, Adrian: I have looked death too often in the face to play the poltroon, now. I don't say it's the end I should have chosen for myself; but it is inevitable, and there is nothing, as you know, my friend, that a man cannot face if he knows it must be faced."
The grasp of his strong warm hands, all manacled as they were, upon the other's nerveless clammy fingers, sent, more than the words, something of the speaker's own courage to his friend's wrung heart. And yet that very courage was an added torment.
That from a community, so full of evil, feeble, harmful wretches, this noble soul, no matter how it had sinned, should be banished at the bidding of justice—what mockery of right was this? The world was out of joint indeed. He groaned aloud.
"Nay, I'll have none of it," cried Jack. "Our last talk, Adrian, must not be spoiled by futile regrets. Yes, our last talk it is to be, for"—the prisoner's face became transfigured with a tenderness so exquisite that Adrian stared at its beauty, amazed—"I have begged her, Madeleine, to come and see me once more. I think she can be here to-day, at latest to-morrow. And after that I would not see any of those I love again, that I may fit myself to meet my God."
He spoke with the utmost simplicity. Adrian bowed his head silently. Then averting his eyes, he said: "My wife has gone to Pulwick to fetch her."
Captain Jack crimsoned. "That is kind," he answered, in a low voice; and, after a pause, pursued: "I hope you do not think it wrong of me to wish to see her. But you may trust me. I shall distress her as little as is possible in the circumstances. It is not, as you can fancy"—his face flushed again as he spoke—"to indulge in a pathetic parting scene, or beg from her sweet lips one last kiss—that would be too grossly selfish, and however this poor body of mine, so soon to be carrion, may yearn to hold her once more closely, these lips, so soon to touch death, shall touch hers no more. I have risen so far above this earthliness, that in so many hours I am to shake off for ever, that I can trust myself to meet her soul to soul. She must believe me now, and I would tell her, Adrian, that my deceit was not premeditated, and that the man she once honoured with her love is not the base wretch she deems. I think it may comfort her. If she does mourn for me at all—she has so proud a spirit, my princess, as I used to call her—it may comfort her to know that I was not all unworthy of the love she once gave me, of the tears she may yet give to its memory and mine."
Sir Adrian pressed his hand, but again could not speak, and Captain Jack went on:
"You will give her a happy home, will you not, till she has one of her own? You and your old dragon of an aunt, whose bark is so much worse than her bite, will watch and guard her. Ah, poor old lady! she is one of those that will not weep for Jack Smith, eh, Adrian? Well, well, I have had a happy life, barring one or two hard raps of fate, and when only I have seen Madeleine once more, I'll feel all taut for the port, though the passage there be a rough one."
Sir Adrian turned his gaze with astonishment upon him. The sailor read his thoughts:
"Don't think," he said, while a sudden shadow crossed his face, "don't think that I don't realise my position, that I have not had to fight my battle. In the beginning I had hopes; never in the success of your mission, but, absurd as it was, in Renny's scheme. The good fellow's own hopefulness was infectious, I believe. And when that fell through—well then, man, I just had to make up my mind to what was to be. It was a battle, as I told you. I have been in danger of death many a time upon the brave old St. Nicholas, and my Cormorant—death from the salt sea, from musket ball and cannon shot, fearful deaths of mangling and hacking. But death on the gallows, the shameful death of the criminal; to be hung; to be executed—Pah! Ay! it was a battle—two nights and one day I fought it. And I tell you, 'tis a hard thing to bring the living flesh and the leaping blood to submit to such as that. At first I thought indeed, it could not be borne, and I must reckon upon your or Renny's friendship for a secret speed. I should have had the pluck to starve myself if need be, only I am so damned strong and healthy, I feared it could not have been managed in the time. At any rate, I could have dashed my brains out against the wall—but I see it otherwise now. The prison chaplain, a good man, Adrian, has made me realise that it would be cowardly, that I should accept my sentence as atonement, as deserved—I have deserved to die."
It had been Sir Adrian's own thought; but he broke out now in inarticulate protest. It seemed too gross, too monstrous.
"Yes, Adrian, I have. You warned me, good friend, in your peaceful room—ah, how long ago it seems now! that night, when all that could make life beautiful lay to my hand for the taking. Oh, man, why did I not heed you! You warned me: he who breaks one law will end by breaking many. You were right. See the harm I wreaked—those poor fellows, who were but doing their duty bravely, whose lives I sacrificed without remorse! Your brother, too, whose soul, with the most deliberate vindictiveness, I sent before its Maker, without an instant's preparation! A guilty soul it was; for he hounded me down, one would almost think for the sport of it.... God! when I think that, but for him, for his wanton interference—but there, the devils are loose again! I must not think on him. Do I not deserve my fate, if the Bible law be right? 'He who sheds blood, his blood shall be shed.' Never was sentence more just. I have sinned, I have repented; I am now ready to atone. I believe the sacrifice will be accepted."
He laid his hand, for a minute, upon the Bible on the table, with a significant gesture.
But Sir Adrian, the philosopher, though he could find no words to impeach the logic of his friend's reasoning, and was all astir with admiration for a resignation as perfect as either Christian or Stoic could desire, found his soul rising in tumultuous rebellion against the hideous decree. The longing that had beset him in the dawn, now seized upon him with a new passion, and the cry escaped his lips almost unwittingly:
"Oh, if I could die for you!"
"No, no," said Jack, with his sweet smile, "your life is too valuable, too precious to the world. Adrian, believe me, you can still do much good with it. And I know you will be happy yet."
It was the only allusion he had made to his friend's more personal sorrows. Before the latter had time to reply, he hastened to proceed:
"And now to business. All the gold entrusted to me lies at Scarthey and, faith, I believe it lies as weightily on my mind as if it was all stored there instead! Renny knows the secret hiding-place. Will you engage to restore it to its owners, in all privacy? This is a terribly arduous undertaking, Adrian, and it is asking much of your friendship; but if I know you, not too much. And it will enable my poor bones to lie at rest, or rather," with a rueful laugh, "hang at rest on their gibbet; for you know I am to be set up as a warning to other fools, like a rat on a barn door. I have, by the kindness of the chaplain, been able to write out a full schedule of the different sums, and to whom they are due. He has taken charge of the closed packet directed to you, and will give it to you intact, I feel sure. He is a man of honour, and I trust him to respect the confidence I have placed in him.... Egad! the poor old boys will be right glad to get their coin back in safety. A couple of them have been up here already, to interview me, in fear and trembling. They were hard set to credit me when I assured them that they would be no losers in the end, after all—barring the waiting. You see, I counted upon you."
"I shall never rest until it is done," said Sir Adrian, simply. And Captain Jack as simply answered: "Thank you. Among the treasure there is also L10,000 of my own; the rest of my laboriously acquired fortune is forfeit to the Crown, as you know—much good may it do it! But this little hoard I give to you. You do not want it, of course, and therefore it is only to be yours that you may administrate it in accordance to my wishes. Another charge—but I make no apology. I wish you to divide it in three equal shares: two to be employed as you see best, for the widows and families of those poor fellows of the preventive service, victims of my venture; the third, as well as my beautiful Peregrine, I leave to the mate and men who served me so faithfully. They have fled with her, and must avoid England for some time. But Renny will contrive to hear of them; they are bound to return in secret for tidings, and I should like to feel that the misery I have left behind me may be mitigated.... And now, dear Adrian, that is all. The man outside grows impatient. I hear him shuffling his keys. Hark! there he knocks; the fellow has a certain rude feeling for me. An honest fellow. Dear Adrian, good-bye."
"My God! this is hard—is there nothing else—nothing—can indeed all my friendship be of no further help?—Hubert!"
"Hush, hush," cried Jack Smith hastily, "Adrian, you alone of all living beings now know me by that name. Never let it cross your lips again. I could not die in peace were it not for the thought that I bring no discredit upon it. My mother believes me dead—God in His mercy has spared me the crowning misery of bringing shame to her white hairs—shame to the old race. Hubert Cochrane died ten years ago. Jack Smith alone it is that dies by the hangman's hand. One other," his voice softened and the hard look of pain left his face, "one other shall hear the secret besides you—but I know she will never speak of it, even to you—and such is my wish."
It was the pride of race at its last and highest expression.
There was the sound, without, of the key in the lock.
"One last word—if you love me, nay, as you love me—do not be there on Saturday! This parting with you—the good-bye to her—that is my death. Afterwards what happens to this flesh," he struck at himself with his chained hands, "matters no more than what will happen to the soulless corpse. I know you would come to help me with the feeling of your love, your presence—but do not—do not—and now good-bye!"
Adrian seized his friend by the hands with a despairing grip, the door rolled back with its dismal screech.
The prisoner smiled at him with tender eyes. This man whom, all unwillingly he had robbed of his wife's heart, was broken with grief that he could not save the life that had brought him misery. Here was a friend to be proud of, even at the gate of death!
"God be with you, dear Adrian! God bless you and your household, and your children, and your children's children! Hear my last words: From my death will be born your happiness, and if its growth be slow, yet it will wax strong and sure as the years go by."