NOVELS AND STORIES BY "Q"
Published by CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Major Vigoureux $1.50 Poison Island $1.50 Sir John Constantine $1.50 The Mayor of Troy $1.50 Shining Ferry $1.50 The Adventures of Harry Revel $1.50 The White Wolf and Other Tales $1.50 The Laird's Luck and Other Tales $1.50 Fort Amity $1.50 Two Sides of the Face: Midwinter Tales $1.50 Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts $1.50 The Ship of Stars $1.50 Historical Tales from Shakespeare $1.50
A. T. QUILLER-COUCH
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS NEW YORK 1907
Copyright, 1907, by CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
Published September, 1907
I. IN THE GARRISON GARDEN 1
II. SERGEANT ARCHELAUS IS RE-FITTED 12
III. THE COMMANDANT FINESSES A KNAVE 28
IV. THE GUN IN THE GREAT FOG 44
V. THE S.S. MILO 56
VI. HOW VASHTI CAME TO THE ISLANDS 71
VII. TRIBULATIONS OF MRS. POPE AND MISS GABRIEL 84
VIII. A BRIEF REVENGE 97
IX. THE SALVING OF S.S. MILO 106
X. THE ADVENTURES OF FOUR SHILLINGS 125
XI. PLAN OF CAMPAIGN 142
XII. SAARON ISLAND 158
XIII. THE LADY FROM THE SEA 174
XIV. AFTER SERVICE 190
XV. BREFAR CHURCH 205
XVI. THE LORD PROPRIETOR'S AUDIENCE 221
XVII. THE LORD PROPRIETOR RECEIVES A DOUBLE SHOCK 232
XVIII. VASHTI PLEADS FOR SAARON 243
XIX. THE COMMANDANT'S CONSCIENCE 262
XX. THE GUITAR AND THE CASEMENT 277
XXI. SUSPICIONS 293
XXII. PIPER'S HOLE 306
XXIII. THE LORD PROPRIETOR HEARS A SIREN SONG 320
XXIV. LINNET SEES A MERMAID 337
XXV. MISSING! 344
XXVI. THE SEARCH 356
XXVII. ENTER THE COMMISSIONER 373
XXVIII. THE FINDING 387
XXIX. CONCLUSION 399
IN THE GARRISON GARDEN
"Archelaus," said the Commandant, "where did you get those trousers?" Sergeant Archelaus, who, as he dug in the neglected garden, had been exposing a great quantity of back-view (for he was a long man), straightened himself up, faced about, and, grounding his long-handled spade as it were a musket, stood with palms crossed over the top of it.
"Off the Lord Proprietor," he answered.
The Commandant, seated on a bench under the veronica hedge, a few yards higher up the slope, laid down his book, took off his spectacles, wiped them, and replaced them very deliberately.
"The Lord Proprietor? I do not understand—" His face had reddened a little, as it usually did at mention of the Lord Proprietor.
"Made me a present of 'em," explained Sergeant Archelaus, curtly. "You don't mean to say you haven't noticed 'em till this minute?"
The Commandant put the question aside. "The Lord Proprietor has no right to be offering presents to my men—least of all, presents of clothes."
"If the Government won't send over stores, nor you write for any, I don't see how the man can help himself. 'Tisn't regulation pattern for the R'yal Artillery, I'll grant you: not the sort of things you'd wear on the right of the line. In fact, he told me 'tis an old pair he used to carry when he went deer-stalkin'."
"They are hideous, Archelaus; not to mention that they don't fit you in the least."
"They don't look so bad when I'm sitting down," said Archelaus, after a moment's thought, and with an air of forced cheerfulness.
"If that's all you can say in extenuation!——"
"Well, 'twas kindly meant, any way; for the old ones were a scandal—yes, be sure. What with sea-water and scrambling after gulls' eggs, they was becoming a byword all over the Islands."
The Commandant winced, not for the first time in this conversation.
"Treacher makes his clothes last," he objected.
"Sam Treacher's a married man, and gets his bad luck different."
"But—but couldn't you ask Mrs. Treacher to take your old ones in hand and put in a patch or two? That might carry you on for a few months, and if you grudge the expense, I don't mind subscribing a shilling or so."
Sergeant Archelaus shook his head. "What's the use?" he asked. "'Tis but puttin' off the evil day. If Her Majesty won't send us clothes, we must fall back on Providence. Besides which, I've taken the edge off these things, and don't want to begin over again. Last Wednesday I wore 'em over to the Off Islands, to practise 'em on the sea-birds; and last evening after dusk I walked through the town with 'em—yes, sir, right out past the church and back again, my blood being up, and came home and cut a square out of the old ones to wrap round the bung of the water-butt."
The Commandant eyed the sergeant's legs in silence, choking down half-a-dozen angry criticisms. No; he could not trust himself to speak; and, after a minute, cramming his clenched fists into the pockets of his frayed fatigue-jacket, he swung about on his heel and walked out of the garden with angry strides.
Was the Lord Proprietor making sport of him?—purposely making him and his garrison the laughing-stock of the Islands?
The Commandant walked up the road with a hot heart: past the Barracks and beyond them to the down, where a ruined windmill overlooked the sea. He wanted to be alone, and up here he could count upon solitude. He wanted to walk off his ill-humour. But the ascent was steep, and he, alas! no longer a young man; and at the windmill he was forced to stand still and draw breath.
At his feet lay the Islands, bathed in the light of a fast-reddening October sunset. Against such a sunset, if the air be very clear, you may see them from the cliffs of the mainland—a low, dark cloud out in the Atlantic; and in old days the Commandant had repined often enough at the few leagues which then had cut him off from the world, from active service, from promotion.
Gradually, as time went on, he had grown resigned, and with resignation he had learnt to be proud of his kingdom—for his kingdom de facto it was. The Islanders had used to speak of him sometimes as The Commandant, but oftener as The Governor. (They never called him The Governor nowadays.) His military establishment, to be sure—consisting of a master-gunner, four other gunners, and two or three aged sergeants—scarcely accorded with his rank of major; but by way of compensation he was, as President of the Council of Twelve, the chief civil magistrate of the Islands.
This requires a word or two of explanation. The Reigning Sovereign of England retained, as he yet retains, military authority over the Islands, and from him, through the Commander-in-chief, our friend held his appointment as military governor. But His Majesty King William III and his successors, by a lease two or three times renewed, had granted "all those His Majesty's territories and rocks"—so the wording ran—to a great and unknown person of whom the Islanders spoke reverentially as The Duke, "together with all sounds, harbours, and sands within the circuit of the said Isles; and all lands, tenements, meadows, pastures, grounds, feedings, fishing places, mines of tin, lead, and coals, and all profits of the same, and full power to dig, work, and mine in the premises; and also all the marshes, void grounds, woods, under-woods, rents, reservoirs, services, and all other profits, rights, commodities, advantages, and emoluments within the said Isles; and a moiety of all shipwreck, the other moiety to be received by the Lord High Admiral; as also all His Majesty's Liberties, Franchises, Authorities, and Jurisdictions, as had before been used in the said Islands; with full power to hear, examine, and finally determine all plaints, suits, matters, actions, controversies, contentions, and demands whatever, moved and depending between party and party inhabiting the said Isle (all business, treason, matters touching life or member of man, or title of land; and also all controversies and causes touching ships, and other things belonging to the High Court of Admiralty always excepted)"—all this for an annual rent of Forty Pounds.
The Duke, in short, was by his lease made Lord Proprietor, with all civil jurisdiction. But, being far too great a man to reside in the Islands, or even to visit them, he entrusted his business to a resident Agent, and deputed his magistracy to an elective Council of Twelve, over which the Commandant for the time being invariably presided. But this custom (it should be explained) rested on courtesy and not upon right. Based upon compromise—for the boundaries between the civil and military jurisdictions were at some points not precisely determined—it had been found to work smoothly enough in practice, it had stood the test of a hundred and fifty years when, in the year after Sevastopol, Major Narcisse Vigoureux arrived in the Islands to take over the military command, and the Duke nominated him for the Presidency quite as a matter of course.
As President, he had power, with the assent of the Court, to inflict fines, whippings, and imprisonment—this last with the limitation that he could not commit to any prison on the mainland, but only to the Island lock-up; and also, if he chose, to prescribe the ducking-stool for refractory or scolding women. The office carried no salary; but as Governor under the Lord Proprietor he enjoyed a valuable perquisite in the harbour dues collected from the shipping. Every vessel visiting the port or hoisting the Queen's colours was liable, on coming to anchor or grounding, to pay the sum of two shillings and two pence. All foreigners paid double. And since, in addition to ships putting in from abroad, it sometimes happened that two hundred sail of coasters would be driven by easterly gales to shelter in St. Lide's Harbour, or roadstead, or in Cromwell's Sound, you may guess that this made a very pleasant addition to the Commandant's military pay.
In short, for a dozen years Major Narcisse Vigoureux had been, for an unmarried man, an exceedingly happy one. If you ask me how an officer bearing such a name happened in command of a British garrison, I answer that he was not a Frenchman, but a Channel Islander of good Jersey descent; and this again helped him to understand the folk over whom he ruled. The wrong-doers feared him; but they were few. By the rest of the population, including his soldiers, he was beloved, respected, not a little envied. For a bachelor he mingled with zest in the small social amusements of Garland Town, the capital of the Islands. He shone at picnics and water-parties. He played a fair hand at whist. His manner towards ladies was deferential; towards men, dignified without a trace of patronage or self-conceit. All voted him a good fellow. At first, indeed—for he practised small economies, and his linen, though clean, was frayed—they suspected him of stinginess, until by accident the Vicar discovered that a great part of his pay went to support his dead brother's family—a widow and two girls who lived at Notting Hill, London, in far from affluent circumstances.
In spite of this the Commandant's lot might fairly have been called enviable until the day which terminated the ninety-nine years' lease upon which the Duke held the Islands. Everyone took it for granted that he would apply, as his predecessors had twice applied, for a renewal. But, no; like a bolt from the blue came news that the Duke, an old man, had waived his application in favour of an unknown purchaser—unknown, that is to say, in the Islands—a London banker, recently created a baronet, by name Sir Caesar Hutchins.
In general, all Garland Town relied for information about persons of rank and title upon Miss Elizabeth Gabriel, a well-to-do spinster lady, daughter of a former agent of the Duke's. But Miss Gabriel's copy of "The Peerage and Baronetage of Great Britain and Ireland" dated from 1845, and Sir Caesar's title being of more recent—or, as she put it, of mushroom—creation, the curious had to wait until a newer volume arrived from the mainland. Meanwhile, at their whist parties twice a week, the gentry of Garland Town indulged in a hundred brisk surmises, but without alarm—"unconscious of their doom, the little victims played." It was agreed, of course, that the new Lord Proprietor would not take up his abode in the Islands. For where was a suitable residence? On the whole the Commandant had little doubt that things would go on as before, but he felt some uneasiness for Mr. Pope, the Duke's agent.
Within a fortnight, however, came two fresh announcements, of which the first—a letter from Sir Caesar, continuing Mr. Pope in his office—gratified everyone. But the second was terrible indeed. The War Office had decided to disband the garrison and remove its guns!
Major Vigoureux' face had whitened as he read that letter, five years ago. It whitened yet at the remembrance of it. As for his hair, it had been whitening ever since.
For dreadful things had happened in those five years. To begin with, the new Lord Proprietor had upset prophecy by coming into residence, and had reared himself a handsome house on the near island of Inniscaw.... But here for a while let us forbear to retrace those five years with their humiliating memories. It is enough that the Commandant now walked with a stoop; that he wore not only his linen frayed but a frayed coat also; and that he who of old had so often wished that England would take note of his Islands against the western sun, now prayed rather that the fogs would cover them and cut them off from sight forever. He had practical reasons, too, for such a prayer; but of these he was not thinking as he turned there by the windmill, and spied Sergeant Treacher approaching along the ridge, and trundling a wheel-barrow full of manure. The level sun-rays, painting the turf to a green almost unnaturally vivid, and gilding the straw of the manure, passed on to flame upon Sergeant Treacher's breast as though beneath his unbuttoned tunic he wore a corslet of burnished brass. The Commandant blinked, again removed his glasses, and, having repolished, resumed them.
"Treacher, what are you wearing?"
"Meanin' the weskit, sir?" asked Treacher.
"Is it a waistcoat?"
"Well, sir, it used to be an antimacassar; but Miss Gabriel had it made up for me, all the shirts in store bein' used up, so to speak."
Too well the Commandant recognised it; an abomination of crochet work in stripes, four inches wide, of scarlet, green, orange-yellow, and violet. For years—in fact ever since he remembered Miss Gabriel's front parlour—it had decorated the back of Miss Gabriel's sofa.
"She said, sir, that with the autumn drawing on, and the winter coming, it would cut up nicely for a weskit," Treacher explained.
"Miss Gabriel," began the Commandant, "Miss Gabriel has no business——"
"No, sir?" suggested Treacher, after a pause.
"You will take it off. You will take it off this instant, and hand it to me."
"Yes, sir." Treacher obediently slipped off his tunic. "I don't like the thing myself; it's too noticeable, though warming. Miss Gabriel called it a Chesterfield."
"It's a conspiracy!" said the Commandant.
SERGEANT ARCHELAUS IS RE-FITTED
The Commandant, still with a hot heart, walked for a little way beside Sergeant Treacher. He carried the offending waistcoat slung across his arm, and once or twice hesitated on the verge of indignant speech; but by-and-by seemed to recollect himself, halted, turned, and, parting from Treacher without more words, marched off for his customary evening walk around the fortifications.
Let us follow him.
The garrison occupied the heights of a peninsula connected with St. Lide's by a low sandy isthmus, across which it looked towards the "country side" of the island, though this country side was in fact concealed by rising ground, for the most part uncultivated, where sheets of mesembryanthemum draped the outcropping ledges of granite. At the foot of the hill, around the pier and harbour to the north and east, clustered St. Hugh's town, and climbed by one devious street to the garrison gate. From where he stood the Commandant could almost look down its chimneys. Along the isthmus straggled a few houses in double line, known as New Town, and beyond, where the isthmus widened, lay the Old Town around its Parish Church. These three together made Garland Town, the capital of the Islands; and the population of St. Lide's—town, garrison, and country side—numbered a little over fourteen hundred. Garrison Hill, rising (as we have seen) with a pretty steep acclivity, attains the height of a hundred and ten feet above sea level. It measures about three-quarters of a mile in length and a quarter of a mile in breadth, and the lines of fortification extended around the whole hill (except upon the north-west side, which happened to be the most important); a circuit of one mile and a quarter.
You entered them beneath a massive but ruinous gateway, surmounted by a bell, which Sergeant Treacher rang regularly at six, nine, and twelve o'clock in the morning, and at three, six, and nine p.m., and struck to announce the intervening hours: for the Islands had no public clock. To the left of this gateway the Commandant always began his round, starting from King George's Battery, to which in old days the Islanders had looked for warning of the enemy's approach. Then it had mounted seven long eighteen-pounders: now—The Commandant sighed and moved on; past the Duke's Battery (four eighteen-pounders), the Vixen (one eighteen and one nine-pounder), and along by a breastwork pierced with embrasures to the important battery on Day Point, at the extreme south-east. Here five thirty-two pounders—and, three hundred yards away to the west, in the great Windlass Battery, no fewer than eleven guns of the same calibre—had grinned defiance at the ships of France. To-day the grass grew on their empty platforms, the nettles sprouted from their angles ... and the Commandant—what was he doing here?
I fear the answer may provoke a smile. He was drawing his pay.
The guns, the garrison, were gone these five years; but by some oversight of the War Office neither the Commandant nor his two sergeants had been retired. Regularly, month by month, his pay-sheet had been accepted; regularly the full amount had been handed to him by Mr. Fossell, agent at Garland Town for Messrs. Curtis' Bank on the mainland. Clearly there was a mistake somewhere, and often enough his conscience smote him, urging that he ought, in honour, to call attention to it. He was defrauding the Government, and, through the Government, the taxpayer.
Yes; conscience put this plainly enough, and he felt it to be unanswerable. But if he obeyed conscience and published the mistake—good Heavens! what would happen to him? Already, three years ago, the Lord Proprietor had resumed the shipping dues which had made so welcome an addition to his income. On the strength of them he had made a too liberal allowance to his brother's widow; and now to maintain it he was driven to deny himself all but the barest necessary expenses. Yet how could he cut it down? The two girls were growing up. Their mother had sent them to a costly school. As it was, her letters burdened him with complaints of her poverty: for she was a peevish, grasping woman—poor soul!
Again, if he published the mistake, he impoverished not himself only but his two sergeants: and Treacher was a married man. He often drugged his conscience with this. But his conscience, being healthy, was soon awake and tormenting him.
It humiliated him, too. Government, which sent him his full pay, never sent him stores, ammunition, or clothing for his men. He wanted no ammunition; but his men needed clothing—and he dared not ask for it. Their uniforms were (as Miss Gabriel had more than once pointedly asserted in his hearing) a scandal to the Islands. Moreover, the price of hens' eggs ruling high in Garland Town, he had discovered that gulls' eggs made a tolerable substitute. It was in scrambling after gulls' eggs for his Commanding Officer that Sergeant Archelaus had ruined his small-clothes.... And now you know why in the course of his discussion with Sergeant Archelaus the Commandant had winced more than once.
Worst of all, the fatal secret tied his tongue under all the many slights (as he reckoned them) which the Lord Proprietor put on him. No; worst of all was the self-reproach he carried about in his own breast. But none the less the Commandant, as a sensitive man, chafed under the Lord Proprietor's tyranny, which was the harder to bear for being slightly contemptuous. He felt that all his old friends pitied him while they turned to worship the rising sun; while, as for Miss Gabriel (who had never been his friend), he feared her caustic tongue worse than the devil.
But to attack him thus through his men! Had Miss Gabriel and the Lord Proprietor conspired to inflict this indignity?
The Commandant was a sincere Christian: ever willing to believe the best of his kind, incapable of harbouring malice, or, except in the brief heat of temper, of imputing it to others. In the short three hundred yards between the Day Point and Windlass Batteries he repented his worst thoughts. He acquitted his enemies—if enemies they were—of conspiracy. The coincidence of the two gifts was fortuitous: they had been offered without guile, if also without sufficient care for his feelings. But this kind of thing must not happen again, and obviously the most tactful way to prevent it was, not to remonstrate with Miss Gabriel or with the Lord Proprietor, but to provide (somehow) his two sergeants with a re-fit.
The Commandant had arrived at this conclusion and at the Sand Pit Battery (five thirty-two pounders) almost simultaneously, when, across the breastwork, he was aware of Mr. Rogers, Lieutenant R. N., and Inspecting Commander of the Coast-guard, standing at the head of the slope just outside the fortifications, and conning the sea through a telescope.
"Hullo!" said Mr. Rogers—a short man with a jolly smile—lowering his glass and facing suddenly about at the sound of the Commandant's footfall. "Hullo! and good evening!"
"Good evening!" responded Major Vigoureux.
"Queer-looking sky out yonder."
"So it is, now you come to mention it." The Commandant, shaken out of his brown study, slowly concentrated his gaze on the western horizon.
"See that bank of fog? I don't know what to make of it. No wind at all; the glass steady as a rock; and a heavy swell rolling up from westward. Take hold of my glass and bring it to bear on the Monk"—this was the lighthouse guarding the westernmost reef of the Off Islands. "Every now and then a sea'll hide half the column."
"For my part," said the Commandant, "I've been out of all calculation with the weather for a week past. It's uncanny for the time of year."
"There's the devil of a rumpus going on somewhere, to account for the sea that's running," said Mr. Rogers, and checked himself in the act of handing the telescope across the breastwork, as he caught sight of Sergeant Treacher's waistcoat, which the Commandant was nervously shifting from his right arm to his left.
"Hullo!" said Mr. Rogers, again.
"It's—it's a sort of waistcoat," explained the Commandant.
"It may be," said Mr. Rogers. "But unless I'm a Dutchman, it used to be The Gabriel's antimacassar"—and with that Mr. Rogers winked, for he had (as the other knew to his cost) an artless, primitive sense of pleasantry. "A gage d'amour, I'll bet any man a sovereign. Come now!"
"I assure you——"
"And you two pretending before everyone that you're at daggers drawn! Trust an old one for slyness!"
(Once again this afternoon the Commandant winced.)
"Oh, but this is too rich!" Mr. Rogers continued, and the Commandant felt that only the intervening breastwork protected him from a nudge under the ribs. "I must take a rise out of the old lady to-night, when we meet at old Fossell's."
"I—I beg you will do nothing of the sort." The Commandant's voice shook with apprehension.
Mr. Rogers, mistaking the tremor in the appeal, recoiled suddenly from the extremely gay to the extremely grave. "My good fellow! Of course, if it's serious!——"
"'Serious!'" The Commandant stared at him for a moment. "Oh, damn the woman!" he broke out in sudden wrath, and went his way with long strides, while the Inspecting Commander looked after him with a broad grin.
The next battery, the Keg of Butter—so called from a barrel-shaped rock which it overlooked—was built of sods, and had mounted a single eighteen-pounder, on a traversing platform. Here, on the north-west side of the hill, the fortifications broke off, or were continued only by a low wall along the edge of the cliff; and here the path, or via militaris, turned off at a sharp angle and led back towards the Castle, under the walls of which the Commandant passed, as a rule, to complete his inspection by visiting the three batteries on the northern cliffs. But to-day he broke his custom, and returned to the Garrison Garden.
As he opened the gate, five o'clock sounded from the garrison bell, and at the first stroke of it he saw Sergeant Archelaus drive his spade into the soil, draw the back of his wrist across his forehead, and walk towards the veronica hedge for his tunic.
"I have been thinking over those trousers—" began the Commandant, picking his way between the briers that threatened to choke the path.
"And so have I," said Sergeant Archelaus; "and the upshot is, Do you spell 'em with a 'u' or a 'w'?"
"Now you mention it, I don't feel able to answer you off-hand; not without writing it down," said the Commandant. "But what on earth does it matter?"
"Nothin'—except that I was thinkin' to write him a letter, to thank him."
"For Heaven's sake—" the Commandant began, and checked himself. "I wouldn't do that, if I were you. In fact, I've been thinking the matter over, and it occurs to me that I have an old pair of dress trousers that might serve your turn; that is to say, if you could manage to unpick the red stripe off your old ones and get someone to sew it on. They are black, to be sure; but the difference between black and dark blue is not so very noticeable. And the cut of them inclines to the peg-top, that being the fashionable shape when I bought them—let me see—in fifty-seven, I think it was."
"I know 'em," said Sergeant Archelaus. "They were sound enough two months back, when I sprinkled 'em over with camphor, against the moth."
"I think they will do excellently."
"They'll do, fast enough," Sergeant Archelaus asserted; "though it seems like deprivin' you."
"Not at all, Archelaus; not in the least. Why, I haven't put on evening dress half a dozen times since I came to the Islands."
"And that's a long time, to be sure, sir. But one never knows. The Lord Proprietor might take it into his head, one o' these days, to invite you to dinner."
"Few things are less likely. And even if he did, and the worst came to the worst, I might borrow Mr. Rogers', you know," added the Commandant—and with a smile; for he stood six feet, and Mr. Rogers a bare five feet five, in their respective socks.
"He might ask you both together. 'Twould be just of a piece with his damned thoughtlessness."
"Hush, Archelaus!" his master commanded sternly, and reproached himself afterwards for having felt not altogether ill-pleased.
"Well, sir, I thank you kindly; and I won't deny 'twill be a comfort to go about with the lower half of me looking a bit less like a pen-wiper. But what be I to do with the pesky things? Return 'em?"
"On no account. You might even thank him—by word of mouth—if you have not already done so."
"I haven't. To tell the truth, the pattern took me so aback at first going off.... But when you came in by the gate, there, I was turning it over in my mind that the garrison oughtn't to be beholden to a civilian——"
"Quite right, Archelaus."
"And, that bein' so, it might be dignified-like to return gift for gift. Now, the Lord Proprietor's terrible fond of bulbs; 'tis a new craze with him; and in spading over the border here I'd a-turned up a dozen or so of those queer-looking Lent-lilies you set such store by——" Sergeant Archelaus pointed towards a little heap of daffodil bulbs carelessly strewn on the up-turned soil.
These bulbs had a history.
Close on thirty years before, a certain Dutch skipper—his name is forgotten—happened to be sailing for Bordeaux with a general cargo, which included some thousands of tulips, and a few almost priceless ones, for a rich purchaser who wished to introduce tulip-culture into the Gironde. The Dutchman's vessel was a flat-bottomed galliot, fitted with lee-boards, but liable to fall away from the wind; and, encountering a strong southerly gale as he attempted to round Ushant, he was blown northward into the fogs, and, through the fogs, upon the Islands.
Against what followed, the chances were at least a thousand to one. His vessel, blind as to her whereabouts, and helpless among the tide-races, missed rock after rock, blundered her way past every sunken peril—to be sure, she was flat-bottomed, but the soundings varied so from moment to moment that the crew, after running a dozen times to the boats in the certainty of striking, fully believed themselves bewitched; until, in St. Lide's Pool, as they made seven fathoms and hoped for open water, the fog lifted suddenly, and they saw Garrison Hill right above them.
This befell them a short hour before sunset. The skipper rounded up to the wind, dropped anchor, got out a boat, and groped his way shoreward—for the fog had descended again, even more speedily than it had lifted.
Groping his way, and still attended by his amazing good luck, the Dutchman, where he had expected rocks, came plump on a pier of hewn masonry. At the pier-head, which loomed high above them, a man struck a light and displayed a lantern; and, looking up, the crew were aware of many people standing there and chattering in the dusk—chattering in the low soft tone peculiar to the Islanders. The skipper hailed them in Dutch, and again in French, these being the only languages he spoke. The Islanders, helping him ashore, made signs that they could not answer, but took him and his men up the hill to the Garrison, then commanded by a Colonel Bartlemy.
Colonel Bartlemy could speak French after a fashion, and so could his excellent wife. Between them they entertained the wanderers hospitably for the space of five days, at the end of which the Dutchman went his way before a clear north wind, and in charge of an Island pilot. But before departing he presented his hosts—it was all that either he could give or they would permit themselves to accept—with a quantity of remarkably fine bulbs from his cargo.
Now, possibly, being a Dutchman, he took it for granted that anyone could recognise these bulbs for what they were. But Mrs. Bartlemy did not; for she had spent the most of her life in various garrisons, which afford few opportunities for gardening. None the less, she was, for a soldier's wife, a first-rate housekeeper; and, supposing these bulbs to be onions of peculiar rarity, she forthwith issued invitations to the elite of the Island, and ordered over a leg of Welsh mutton from the mainland. I will not attempt to tell of the dinner that ensued: for Miss Gabriel made the story her own, and everyone who heard her relate it after one of Garland Town's petits soupers—as she frequently did by special request—declared it to be inimitable. Suffice it to say that the tulips were boiled, but not eaten.
A few bulbs, of smaller size, escaped the pot, and Mrs. Bartlemy, in her mortification, ordered the cook to throw them away, or (in the language of the Islands) to "heave them to cliff." The cook cast them out upon a bed of rubbish in a corner of the garrison garden, where by-and-by they were covered with fresh rubbish, under which they sprouted; and, next spring, lo! the midden heap had become a mound of glorious trumpet daffodils!
So they were left to blossom, refreshing the eyes of successive Commandants year after year as March came round and the March nor'-westers set their yellow bells waving against the blue sea. Major Vigoureux delighted in them—were they not his name-flower? But no one took pains to cultivate them, as no one suspected their great destiny. They bloomed year by year, and waited. Their hour was not yet.
"By all means, Archelaus, let us do it tactfully," agreed the Commandant. "We must suppress those trousers of his at all costs. Yet I would avoid anything in the nature of a rebuff, and if you think the Lord Proprietor would be gratified, you are welcome to take him as many of the bulbs as you please. Only leave me a few; for God knows our garden has few ornaments to spare."
"I'll take 'em over to Inniscaw and thank him by word o' mouth," said Sergeant Archelaus, hopefully. "It'll save me the trouble of spelling 'trousers,' anyway."
"It would be easier, as well as more accurate," said the Commandant, pensively regarding the Sergeant's legs, "to call them trews. Not," he went on inconsequently, "that I have anything to say against the Highland Regiments. I was brigaded once for three months with the Forth-Second, and capital fellows I found them."
With a mind relieved, the Commandant walked off towards the Barracks, pausing on his way to pick up Miss Gabriel's antimacassar-waistcoat, which he had taken the precaution to leave outside the gate.
Three-quarters of an hour later he emerged in clean shirt and threadbare, but well-brushed, uniform, arrayed for Mr. and Mrs. Fossell's whist-party. As he passed the Garrison gate, Mrs. Treacher, who sometimes acted deputy for her husband, began to ring the six o'clock bell. He halted and waited for her to finish.
"Mrs. Treacher," he said, "can you tell me the price of flannel?"
"Flannel," answered Mrs. Treacher, "is all prices, according to quality."
"But I am talking of good ordinary flannel, fit to make up into a man's shirt."
"Then you couldn't say less than one-three-farthings, or one-and-a-ha'penny at the lowest."
"And how much would be required?"
"Good Lord!" said Mrs. Treacher. "As if that didn't all depend on the man!"
"I was thinking, Mrs. Treacher, to present your husband with one: that is to say, with the material, if you will not mind making it up."
Mrs. Treacher curtsied. "And I thank you kindly, sir, for 'tis not before he needs one, which, being under average size and the width just a yard, as you may reckon, he oughtn't to take more than three-and-a-half yards at the outside."
"Three-and-a-half at one-three-farthings—that makes—Oh, confound these fractions!" said the Commandant. "We'll make it four shillings, and you had best step down to Tregaskis' shop to-morrow and choose the stuff yourself." He counted out the money into Mrs. Treacher's hand, and left her curtseying. As he went, he jingled the few coins remaining in his breeches pocket. They amounted to two-and-seven-pence in all—and almost a week stood between him and pay-day.
THE COMMANDANT FINESSES A KNAVE
"I remember the Bartlemys perfectly," said Miss Gabriel, addressing the company as they sat around Mr. and Mrs. Fossell's dining-table and trifled with a light collation of cordial waters and ratafia biscuits—prelude to serious whist. "I carry them both in my mind's eye, though I must have been but a tiny child when he succumbed to apoplexy, and she left the Islands to reside with a married sister at Scarborough. Very poorly-off he left her. Somehow, our Commanding Officers have never contrived to save money—even in the old days, when the post was worth having."
Miss Gabriel said it lightly but pointedly, with a glance at the Commandant. The company stared at their plates and glasses. It was well-known that (as Mr. Rogers put it) Miss Gabriel "had her knife into" the patient man, and there were tongues that attributed her spitefulness to disappointment. Fifteen years ago, when Major Narcisse Vigoureux—no longer in his first youth, but still a man of handsome presence—had first arrived in the Islands to take over his command, Miss Gabriel was a not uncomely woman of thirty. Partis in the Islands are few, as you may suppose. He was a bachelor, she a spinster; she had money, and he position. What wonder, then, if the Islanders expected them to make a match of it?
For some reason, the match had never come off, and although she might convince herself that the simplest reason—incompatibility—was the true one, Miss Gabriel could hardly have been unaware that the women looked upon her as one who had missed her chance, and even blamed her a little—as women always will in such cases—in a conspiracy of sex acknowledging its weakness. Perhaps this made her defiant.
She was handling the Commandant truculently to-night.
"Of course," she continued, "even in those days the post—don't they say the same in England of a Deanery?—was looked upon as finishing a man's career. I don't know, for my part, the principle upon which the Horse Guards—it used to be the Horse Guards—sent Colonel Bartlemy down to us."
"By selection, ma'am," said the Commandant, still patiently, as she paused; "by selection among a number of applicants."
"I didn't want to be told that," snapped Miss Gabriel. "What I meant was, the Commander-in-Chief probably knew something of the man—had informed himself of something in his record—before sending him down to this exile."
"And a jolly good exile, too!" put in Mr. Rogers, heartily.
"It used to be," said Miss Gabriel. "This Colonel Bartlemy, for instance, was a coward. I've heard it told of him that once, during his command, a sort of mutiny broke out in the Barracks. It happened at a time when the newspapers were full of nonsense about France invading us by a sudden descent; and the noise, reaching him in the quarters where he lodged with his wife and one general maid-servant, put him in a terrible fright. He had fenced off these quarters of his for privacy, because Mrs. Bartlemy thought it would be a good deal better for the maid-servant; and they communicated with the Barracks by a staircase with a door of which he kept the key. On the first alarm he ran to this door and called through the key-hole for his orderly; but the orderly, who himself was taking part in the disturbance, did not hear. So the Colonel called up his wife and the servant, and joined them at the head of the stairs after he had slipped on his belt and sword. By this time the noise below was deafening. The Colonel, putting a brave face on it, managed to get the key into the lock and turn it. Then, as he flung the door open, he turned with a bow to his wife and said very politely, in French—for they were in the habit of talking French before the girl—'Passez devant, madame!'"
"How did it end?" asked Mr. Rogers, after a guffaw.
"Oh, it turned out to be just a barrack brawl. The soldiers were always the worst-behaved lot in the Islands, and perpetually grumbling—though in those days," added Miss Gabriel, "I always understood that they were fed and clothed sufficiently."
The Commandant whitened. Mrs. Fossell, a nervous body in a cap with lilac ribbon, rose in some little fluster, and opined that it was almost time to cut for partners.
A few minutes later the Commandant found himself seated opposite Mr. Fossell, with Miss Gabriel and Mr. Rogers for opponents—Miss Gabriel on his left. He prepared to enjoy himself, for whist meant silence, and he could have chosen no better partner than Mr. Fossell, who played a sound game, and with a perfectly inscrutable face.
"Dear me!" said Miss Gabriel, in the act of picking up her cards, "it seems as if this had happened a great many times before! What do you say, Mr. Fossell, to staking half-a-crown on the rubber, just to enliven the game? You don't object on principle, I know, to playing for money."
"No, indeed, ma'am," answered Mr. Fossell. "I am content if the others are willing—not that for me the pleasure of playing against you needs any such—er—adventitious stimulus."
Miss Gabriel appealed to Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers thought it would be great fun. "Come along, Vigoureux," he almost shouted, "you can't refuse a lady's challenge!"
What could the poor Commandant do? Almost before he knew he had nodded, though with a set face, and by the nod committed himself. He felt his few coins burning in his breeches' pocket against his thigh, as if they warned him.
But, after all, Fossell was an excellent player. With the smallest luck, he and Fossell ought to be more than a match for a pair of whom, if one (Miss Gabriel) was wily, the other played a game not usually distinguishable from bumble-puppy.
They won the first game easily.
They had almost won the second when a devastating seven trumps in Mr. Rogers's hand (which he played atrociously) saw their opponents almost level—the score eight-seven. In the next hand, Miss Gabriel—for this was old-fashioned long whist—held all four honours, and took the game.
The Commandant looked at Mr. Fossell. But a financier is not disturbed by the risk of half-a-crown.
Only half-a-crown!—but for the Commandant a week between this half-a-crown and another.
He wondered what Fossell would say—Fossell, sitting there, so imperturbable, with his shiny bald head—if he knew.
"Game and!" announced Mr. Rogers.
By this time the players at the second table, aware of the half-a-crown at stake, were listening in a state of suppressed excitement—suppressed because the Vicar, being deaf, had not overheard Miss Gabriel's challenge, and the others feared that he might disapprove of playing for money.
The Vicar, who played against Mr. and Mrs. Pope, with Mrs. Fossell for partner, had a habit of soliloquising over his hand on any subject that occurred to him. The rest of the table deferred to this habit, out of respect or because by experience they knew it to be incurable, since only by conscious effort could he hear any voice but his own.
By such an effort, holding his hand to his ear, he had listened to Miss Gabriel's anecdote about Colonel Bartlemy; smiling the while because he had heard it many times before and knew it to be a good one; innocently unaware that it covered any caustic subintention. It had started him on a train of reminiscence which he pursued at the card-table (good man) for twenty-five minutes, recalling himself to the cards with a faint shock of surprise whenever it became his turn to play, as one who would protest—"What, again? And so soon?"
"Yes, indeed," the Vicar's voice struck in across the strained silence, "there is an old story that Oliver Cromwell left behind him, in garrison here, a company of the Bedfordshire Regiment, and that in time they were completely forgotten. (Let me see. Spades are trumps, I believe.... 'Clubs'? Your pardon Mrs. Fossell, but I remember it was a black suit.) Yes, and seeing no prospect of recall they married in time with our Island women, and that"—here the Vicar gathered up a trick which belonged to his opponents—"is, by some, alleged to be the reason why the Islanders use a purer English than is spoken on the mainland. Ah, quite so; yes, I played the ten—then it was your ace, Mrs. Pope? I congratulate you, ma'am."
The Commandant, overhearing, could not forbear a glance at Miss Gabriel. It conveyed no resentment, scarcely even a reproach; it turned rather, as by dumb instinct, upon the author of the wound, and asked perplexedly:—"What have I done to you, that you treat me thus?" I have no doubt that Miss Gabriel caught the glance. She did not answer it; but her grey eyes glinted beneath their lids as she bent them upon the cards Mr. Fossell was dealing in his usual deliberate way—glinted as though with a spark of flint struck out by steel.
"The story may be apocryphal," pursued the Vicar, addressing deaf ears around the other table; "though, for my part, I incline to think there may be a substratum——"
Mr. Fossell turned up the queen of hearts. The Commandant held ace, ten, and two small trumps, with a strong hand in diamonds, which Mr. Rogers, by a blundering lead, enabled him to establish early. Actual honours were "easy"; but by exhausting trumps at the first opportunity, he scored three by tricks. The next hand gave their opponents three points—two by honours, and the trick. Three all.
The Vicar was heard to observe that, on the whole, intermarriage among the Islanders had not produced the disastrous effects usually predicted of it; and that, therefore, an infusion of fresh blood, at some date more or less remote, might reasonably be conjectured, even though incapable of proof.
The Vicar, as he said this, looked across at Mrs. Fossell interrogatively. He was really expecting her to lead trumps, but she mistook him to be asking her assent to his theory. To keep the ball rolling, she opined that what had happened once need not necessarily happen again, especially in these days when locomotion was making such strides. She hazarded this in the lowest key; but it happened in just that momentary hush upon which the faintest remark falls resonantly. The Commandant heard it across the room as he waited for Mr. Rogers to cut the cards; and the Vicar, by a freak of hearing, picked it up at once.
"My dear lady," he demanded, "are you talking of progenitiveness!"
"N-no," stammered Mrs. Fossell, in confusion. "Nothing of the sort. I was referring to the garrison here being left out of mind—like the regiment you spoke of——"
Miss Gabriel tapped the table impatiently. "Mr. Rogers," she said, "I think we had better attend to the game. Major Vigoureux is waiting for you to cut." She said it with her eyes upon the Commandant's hand, which was trembling. He wondered, as he dealt, if she had observed that it was trembling. If so, had she guessed the true reason?
The score mounted to nine-eight. The Commandant lifted a hand to his brow as Mr. Fossell, whose turn it was, took up the cards and began to deal methodically, without a trace of discomposure.
"Half a crown! and if he lost, one penny left to last him to next pay day!" A terrible thought seized him. "And what if, when he presented himself at Mr. Fossell's bank on pay-day, the money was not forthcoming?" Nonsense! He was unhinged.... The money had always arrived punctually ... but the whole world seemed to be in conspiracy against him to-night, and his luck along with it.
Mr. Rogers, who had a trick of sorting out his suits between his fingers, hesitated for a few moments, put his cards together, and with an air of fierce determination, led a small heart.
Again the Commandant's right hand went up to his brow. The room was very close and still. But the Vicar remained unaware of the general excitement, and across the silence the Vicar was heard to say confidentially:—
"Between you and me there was a time when I hoped our friend the Commandant might make a match of it."
The poor Commandant!... With his gaze fixed on the cards, he felt that every ear was listening, every eye turned upon him. He must do something desperate to break the horrible spell, to turn the luck.... He held ace, king, knave of hearts, and knew well enough that, in sound whist he ought to play the king. But why had Mr. Rogers led hearts? Mr. Rogers did not often lead even from a strong suit unless it contained at least one honour.
The Commandant risked it and finessed his knave. Miss Gabriel had been waiting, watching him intently. Her mouth shut almost with a snap of triumph as she put down the queen.
It was, as it happened, the one heart in her hand. She closed her triumph, a few rounds later, by trumping the Commandant's ace and king. Mr. Fossell looked at his partner, in sorrow rather than in anger. Mr. Rogers laughed uproariously as he counted up the tricks.
"Double or quits, I suppose?" he suggested.
But the Commandant rose. "Your pardon, Miss Gabriel," he said, laying his half-crown on the table, "if I play no more for money to-night. Indeed, I was going to ask Mrs. Fossell to forgive me if I spoil one of her quartettes by withdrawing. To tell the truth, I am not myself—a slight dizziness——"
"A glass of hot brandy-and-water?" suggested Mr. Fossell. "Nay, then, a thimbleful—I insist!"
The Commandant made his excuses as politely as he could, and found himself in the street. The night was pitch-dark and the road full of sea-fog—a fog so thick that it completely shut off the rays of the many lighthouses twinkling around the Islands, and obscured the few street lamps that illuminated Garland Town. A slight breeze blew up from the west and damped his brow; for his dizziness had been something more than a pretence, and he walked with his hat in his hand.
On such a night a stranger might well have lost his way; but the Commandant steered for Garrison Hill without a mistake, and up the hill towards the Barracks. Garland Town is early a-bed. He passed no one in the streets. But in St. Hugh's, as he went by the closed door of a cottage, half-way up the ascent, he recalled the night, years ago, of his first arrival in the Islands. He had come a week before the garrison expected him, and there had been no one to meet him on the quay when he arrived in the dusk of an October evening. Darkness had descended on the Islands before he started from the quay to climb to his new home; and here—just here, at this doorway—he had paused to ask his way. The door had stood open then, with a panel of warm firelight lying across the roadway, and as he halted and peered into the room—it was a kitchen, and the light from the open hearth glinted on rows of china plates ranged along the dresser—he saw two girls beside the fire; the one seated and reading from a book in her lap, the other on the hearth-mat half reclined against her sister's knee, over which she had flung an arm to prop her chin as she listened.... He remembered the sand strewn on the slate floor, the fresh sea-smell in this room so confidingly open to the night—the scene so intimate, so homely, that the traveller standing in the doorway with the sea-spray on his cloak could scarcely believe in the tide-races across which he had been voyaging for hours. He stood, the hum of them in his ears, a doubtful intruder; and while he stood, the girl in the chair had risen and bade him good evening in purest English.
"You have come by the boat? You will be from the mainland?" she said, and he wondered a little, not being used as yet to hear his country spoken of as the mainland. "And I am going to England to-morrow," she added. "The boat which brought you will take me over on its return journey."
"You know England well, I expect?" He found himself saying this for lack of anything better.
"She has never been outside the Islands," said her sister, who also had risen. "And it is the same with me. But to-morrow she is going—" the girl paused here, not it (seemed) in pain, but wistfully, as in a kind of solemn awe at the prospect. "We left the door open for father. He has a fancy to see the light across the road as he comes up the hill. But he is late to-night at the fishing."
The Commandant, glancing around the room, divined—he could not tell why—that these girls were motherless. His eyes fell on the open book which the elder sister laid on the chair as she rose. The firelight enabled him to read its page-heading, printed in thick, blunt type—"King Lear"! These girls, the one of them about to visit unknown England, were reading Shakespeare together.
"Urbem quam dicunt Romam"—he felt a wild inclination to question them, to ask what they expected to learn of England from Shakespeare, and from that play of all others. But being a shy man, then as ever, he forbore, and contented himself with asking the way to the Barracks.
They went with him to the door to direct him; and so, wishing them good-night, he had gone up the hill. That was all. He had never seen the elder sister again; did not know to this day what business had taken her away to the mainland, not to return. The younger had married a pilot, and was now the mother of a growing family in Saaron Island, which lies next to Brefar, which faces Inniscaw. Her farmstead there (the solitary one on the island), stood a short way above the landing quay; and once or twice, catching sight of her in her doorway and lifting his hat as he went by (for the Commandant was ever polite), he had found it in his mind to stop and inquire after her sister.
He had never translated this resolve into action. The Commandant—as everyone knew on the Islands—was "desperate shy," or "that shy you'd never believe." But the scene had bitten itself upon his memory, and he recalled it almost as often as he passed the door. He recalled it to-night, as he stumbled by it in the fog and uphill to his cheerless lodgings.
What a blind thing was life! blind even as this fog—and his home in it these cheerless Barracks; to which nevertheless he must cling, in spite of his honour, an old man, good for nothing, afraid to be found out! He groped his way to the front door, opened it with his latchkey, lit the candle which Sergeant Archelaus had considerately placed at the foot of the stairs, and, climbing them to his bedroom, flung himself on his knees by the bed.
Now the architect of the Barracks had designed them upon a singular plan, of which the peculiar inconvenience was that almost every room led to some other; which saved corridor space, but was fatal to privacy.
Beyond the Commandant's bedroom, which opened upon the first floor landing of the main staircase, lay a room in which he kept his fishing clothes, and in which Sergeant Archelaus sometimes lit a fire to dry them by.
It was a small room, well shielded from the draughts which raged through the building in winter; and here Sergeant Archelaus had lit a fire to-night and sat before it, sewing an artilleryman's stripe upon the Commandant's cast dress trousers.
Hearing a noise in the outer room, and not expecting his master's return for at least a couple of hours, he hurried out in some perturbation, with the trousers flung across his arm—to find the Commandant kneeling at his devotions.
"I beg your pardon, sir!"
"It's of no consequence," said the Commandant, looking up (but he was desperately confused). "I—I always say my prayers, you know."
"What? Before undressing?" said Sergeant Archelaus.
THE GUN IN THE GREAT FOG
Politely though he had contrived his departure, the Commandant left Mrs. Fossell's whist-party to something like dismay. A passing indisposition—no excuse could be more reasonable. Still, nothing of the kind had ever interrupted these gatherings within Mrs. Fossell's recollection, and she could not help taking a serious view of it.
"A passing indisposition," was Mr. Fossell's phrase, and he kept repeating it—with an occasional "Nonsense, my dear"—in answer to his wife's gloomy forebodings.
"But I shall send round, the first thing in the morning, to inquire," she insisted.
"Do so, my dear."
"It can't be serious, ma'am," Mr. Rogers assured her jollily. "You heard him decline my arm when I offered to see him home."
"In my opinion," said Miss Gabriel, "the man is breaking up." She touched her forehead lightly with the tip of her forefinger.
"Breaking up?" echoed her host and Mrs. Pope, incredulous. "My dear Elizabeth!" began Mrs. Fossell.
"Breaking up," Miss Gabriel repeated with a very positive nod of her head. "He has not been the same man since the Lord Proprietor took over the presidency of the Court and he refused, upon pique, to be elected an ordinary member. Say what you like, a man cannot be virtual Governor of the Islands one day and the next a mere nobody without its preying upon him."
"He made light of it at the time," observed Mr. Fossell, who (it goes without saying) was councillor; "although I ventured to remonstrate with him."
"And I," said Mr. Pope, who (it also goes without saying) was another. "In the friendliest possible way you understand. I pointed out that the Lord Proprietor was, after all, the Lord Proprietor, and, as such, did not understand being thwarted. Very naturally, as you will all admit."
"It's human nature, when you come to think of it," put in the Steward's wife (she preferred the title of Steward to that of agent, and was gradually accustoming society to the sound, even as in earlier years, when a young married woman, she had taught it to substitute "agent" for "factor"). If, during the interval when her husband's dismissal seemed inevitable, she had lost no opportunity of prophesying evil of the new Lord Proprietor, she made up for it now by justifying his every action.
"If that's the ground you're going on," spoke up Mr. Rogers, who, with all his faults was nothing of a snob, "it's human nature for Vigoureux to feel sore. As for the magistracy, he's not the man to value it one pin. It's the neglect; and to meet the old fellow mooning around his batteries as I did this very afternoon—I tell you it makes a man sorry."
If this speech did Mr. Rogers credit he cancelled it presently by his atrocious behaviour at cards. The symmetry of the party being broken, Miss Gabriel announced that she had enjoyed enough whist for the evening, and that nothing in the world would give her greater pleasure than half-an-hour's quiet talk, with the Vicar—that was, if Mrs. Fossell and he would not mind cutting out and surrendering their seats to Mr. Fossell and Mr. Rogers. In saying this she outrageously flattered the Vicar, with whom it was impossible to hold conversation in any tone below that of shouting. She meant that she was prepared to listen; and she knew that no flattery was too outrageous for him to swallow. She knew also that Mrs. Fossell in her heart of hearts abhorred cards, and would be only too grateful for release, to look after the preparations for supper and scold the parlour-maid outside. So the Vicar and Mrs. Fossell cut out, and Mr. Fossell and Mr. Rogers replaced them as partners against Mr. and Mrs. Pope.
Mr. and Mrs. Pope always played together. No one knew why, but it had come to be an understood thing. Of "calls" and "echoes" the play of Mr. and Mrs. Pope was innocent; but when Mrs. Pope, being second hand, hesitated whether to trump her opponent's card or pass it, Mr. Pope had an unconscious habit of saying, "Now dearest," when he desired her to trump; and another unconscious habit, when Mrs. Pope had the lead and he wanted trumps, of murmuring, "Your turn, darling." These two habits Mr. Rogers had noted; and being in merry pin to-night over winning his half-crown, at a moment when Mr. Fossell, having the lead, appeared to hesitate (but the hesitation was only a part of Mr. Fossell's deliberate play), he leaned over and playfully suggested, "Your turn, darling!"
Mr. Fossell stared in the act of putting down a trump. For a moment he appeared to think that Mr. Rogers had gone mad; then, in spite of himself, the lines of his mouth relaxed.
"I do not think," said Mr. Pope, heavily—and the lines of Mr. Fossell's mouth at once grew rigid again—"I do not think you two ought to signal for trumps in that fashion."
His partner looked up innocently. In the slow pause Mr. Rogers was growing purple in the face, when again the Vicar's voice broke across the silence. "The Lord Proprietor's power in former days—I speak only of former days—may well have warranted the Government in stationing a military officer here to keep some check on him. For instance, he shared all ordinary wrecks with the Lord High Admiral, but a wreck became his sole property by law, if none of the crew remained alive; a dangerous reservation, ma'am, in times when justice travelled slowly, and much might happen in the Islands and never a word of it reach London."
Miss Gabriel put up both hands—they were encased in mittens, and the mittens decorated with steel beads—as if to close her ears.
"We must be thankful, indeed," she began, and paused in dismay as the floor of Mrs. Fossell's drawing-room trembled under her, and at the same moment the window sashes rattled violently throughout the house.
"What was that?"
The players dropped their cards. All listened.
"Upon my word," suggested the Vicar, who had heard nothing, but felt the concussion, "if it weren't positively known to be empty one would say the powder magazine at the Garrison——"
"Oh, Richard! Richard!"—here Mrs. Fossell came running in from the dining-room with a dish of trifle in her hands—"Is it an earthquake?"
"I—I rather think not, my dear!"
"At any rate it can't be the end of the world?" She turned and appealed to the Vicar, and from the Vicar again to her husband. "And if it is not, I wish you would come to Selina, for she has dropped the cold shape all over the floor and is having hysterics in the better of the two armchairs!"
Indeed, Selina's hysterics could be heard.
"Earthquake? Fiddlesticks, ma'am!" said Mr. Rogers, buttoning his pea-jacket and turning up its collar. "What you heard was a gun. There is a vessel in distress somewhere, and we shall have my men here in a moment with news of her."
"But there was no sound," objected Mrs. Pope.
"Fog, ma'am—fog; sound don't travel in a fog, and ships oughtn't to. There has been a nasty bank of it to the south'ard ever since morning, and you may bet that's the mischief."
He went into the hall for his lantern, brought it back, lit it, and carried it out to the front door.
"Whe—ew!" he whistled, as he opened the door and stood, with lantern lifted high, staring into the night.
The guests behind him wondered; for all was quiet outside—too quiet, to ears accustomed to the wind which forever sings across the islands, even on summer days, mingling its whispers and soft murmurings with the hum of the distant tide-races. But while they wondered, Mr. Rogers's figure grew vague and amorphous in a cloud of fog that drifted past him into the passage. The light in his lantern had turned to a weak flame of yellow, and seemed on the point of dying out.
"Ahoy, there! Is that Mr. Rogers?" called a thin voice out of the night.
"Ahoy! Mr. Rogers, it is. What's wrong?"
"Thank God I've found you!" The voice sounded suddenly quite close at hand, and a man blundered against the doorstep.
"Eh?"—the others saw Mr. Rogers give back in astonishment—"The Lord Proprietor?"
"Safe and sound, too, by Heaven's mercy," said the Lord Proprietor, plucking off his peaked cap and shaking the water from it. He carried a lantern, and his jacket and loose trousers of yellow oilskin shone with the wet like a suit of mail. "All the way from Inniscaw I've come, in the gig. Peter Hicks and old Abe pulled me, and the Lord knows where we made land or what has become of them. Man, there's a vessel ashore—a liner, they say! Didn't you hear the gun a minute since?"
"Yes, yes; but where is she?"
"That's more than I know. Somewhere among the Off Islands; on the Terrier, maybe, or the Hell-meadows. All I can tell you is that old Abe brought the news to the Priory, almost three hours ago: his son-in-law, young Ashbran, had seen her in a lift of the fog—a powerful steamship with two funnels and a broad white band upon each. She hadn't struck when he saw her; but she was nosing into an infernal mess of rocks, and the light closing down fast. I didn't see Ashbran himself; Abe believed he had put across to warn your men. But as the old man couldn't swear to it I told him to get out the gig and fetch Peter Hicks, and so we started."
"I'm wondering why those men of mine haven't brought me warning. Ashbran can't have reached them."
"He started late, belike, and lost his way in the fog; or it's even possible—though you won't believe it—that your men started to find you and have lost themselves. My good sir, you never knew such a fog!"
"Yet I left word with the chief boatman," mused Mr. Rogers. "He knows perfectly well where I am."
"Does he?" said the Lord Proprietor. "Then it's more than I do. What house is this?"
"Why, Fossell's. Good Lord! didn't you know?"
"My dear Sir Caesar—" Mr. Fossel stepped forward solicitously.
"Eh? So it is.... Good evening, Mr. Fossell! That picture of the Waterloo Banquet seemed familiar, somehow." The Lord Proprietor nodded towards a framed engraving on the wall. "Yes, to be sure—and Landseer's 'Twa Dogs.' But this is worse than the Arabian Nights! We must have missed the harbour by miles!"
"You came ashore at Cam Point, most probably," Mr. Fossell suggested. "The tide sets that way, and from Cam Point it is but a step."
"A step, is it? Man, I've been wandering in blank darkness for a full hour. Twice I've found myself on the edge of a cliff. I've followed walls only to be led into open fields. I've struck across open fields, only to tumble against troughs, midden heaps, pig-styes. I walked straight up against this house, supposing myself somewhere near the batteries on Garrison Hill—though how I had managed to miss the town was more than I could explain."
"The wonder is you ever fetched across from Inniscaw."
"It's my belief we had never done it, but for the tide. The night was black as your hat when we started, but fairly clear. We kept sight of the lamp on the pier-head until half-way across. Then the fog came down; and then——!"
"Well, it's good hard causeway between this and St. Hugh's," said Mr. Rogers. "We can't miss it. Afterwards.... However, you'll step along with me to the Guard-house, Sir Caesar, and as soon as the weather lifts at all one of my men shall put you back to Inniscaw."
"On the contrary, my good sir, I go with you."
Mr. Rogers looked at him, as he buttoned up his pea-jacket.
"We won't argue it here," he said. "You don't guess what it means, though, searching for a wreck among the Off Islands on a night like this. Not to mention that there's a sea running...."
And yet, apart from the fog, there was nothing in the weather to suggest shipwreck and horrors. For a fortnight the Islands had lain steeped in the sunshine of Indian summer; a fortnight of still starry nights and days almost without a cloud. As a rule, such weather breaks up in a gale, of which the glass gives timely warning. But the mercury in Mr. Fossell's barometer indicated no depression—or the merest trifle. The drenched night air was warm: to Miss Gabriel, inhaling it in the passage by the drawing-room door, it seemed to be laden with the scents of summer, and Miss Gabriel had not lived all her life in Garland Town without learning the subtle aromas of the wind, to distinguish those that were harmless or beneficent from those that warned, those that threatened, those that were morose, savage, malignant, those that piped a note of madness and meant a hurricane. Nor did the fog in itself appear to her very formidable. To be sure, she had never known a thicker one; but the Lord Proprietor (saving his presence) had probably exaggerated its terror. He was—let this excuse be made for him—a landsman, comparatively new to the Islands.
Probably Mr. Fossell and Mr. Pope and the Vicar took the same view. The news of the wreck had excited them, and they were offering to accompany Sir Caesar and Mr. Rogers to St. Hugh's Town, on the chance of some information.
"And we had best go with them, my dear," suggested Miss Gabriel to Mrs. Pope. (Their houses stood side by side and contiguous, on a gentle rise at the foot of Garrison Hill, where the peninsular of New Town broadens out and New Town itself melts into St. Hugh's.)
Mrs. Fossel begged them to wait and keep her company until the gentlemen returned. "It is impossible," she urged as an inducement, "that Selina can go on making this noise forever."
But Miss Gabriel had taken her decision, and from a decision Miss Gabriel was not easily turned.
"My dear," said she, reaching for her cloak, "the gentlemen may not return until goodness knows when, and I have a prejudice against late hours."
They started in a body. The fog, to be sure, was a deal worse than ever Miss Gabriel could have credited. Still, the gentlemen using their lanterns and tapping to right and left with their sticks, they found the hard causeway, and blundered along it towards St. Hugh's, the ladies with their shawls drawn over their heads and their heads held down against the drifting wall of moisture.
They had made their way thus for about four hundred yards—that is to say, about a third of the length of the causeway—when suddenly the fog ahead of them became luminous, and they perceived torches waving.
"Mr. Rogers! Is that Mr. Rogers?" called a voice.
"Ay, ay, men!" Mr. Rogers hailed in answer, recognising his coastguard. "I am coming—fast as I can," he added, having at that moment run into a wall.
"A wreck, sir!"
"Ay! Where is it?"
"Somewhere beyond St. Ann's, sir, as we make it—out towards the Monk. There was a gun fired, and Dick, here, thinks as he saw the lighthouse send up a signal; but lights there's none that the rest of us can make out——"
Again the fog shook with the concussion of a gun.
"Due west, as I make it out," said Mr. Rogers. "Are the boats ready?"
"Aye, sir; the jolly-boat manned and off, and the gig launched and lying by the slip."
"Then run, men!"
"Why, they've left us!" gasped Mrs. Pope, as the glare of the torches melted into the fog.
"It doesn't matter," Miss Gabriel assured her bravely. "We have only to keep straight on."
THE S.S. MILO
Major Vigoureux fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. He owed this habit originally to a clear conscience, and although (as the reader knows) his conscience was no longer quite clear, the habit had not forsaken him.
He dreamed that he was presenting himself at Mr. Fossell's bank, and giving Mr. Fossell across the counter a number of plausible reasons why his pay should be handed to him as usual. He knew all the while that his arguments were sophistical and radically unsound; but he trusted that he was making them cogent. (Why is it that in dreams we feel no remorse for our sins, but only a terror lest we be found out? I cannot tell; but the best men and women of my acquaintance agree that it is so.) Mr. Fossell preserved an impassive, inscrutable face; but every time the Commandant ventured a new argument Mr. Fossell's high, bald head twinkled and suddenly changed colour like a chameleon. It was green, it was violet, it was bathed in a soft roseate glow like an Alpine peak at sunset; and still while he argued the Commandant was forced to dodge his body about lest Mr. Fossell should catch sight of a mirror fixed in the opposite wall, and perceive how strangely his scalp was behaving. Finally, Mr. Fossell turned as if convinced, walked away to an inner room, and came back bearing a bag of money, round and distended—so tightly distended, indeed, that the Commandant called out to him to be careful of the contents. But the cry came a moment too late; for the bag, as it touched the counter, exploded with a dull report, collapsed, and flattened itself out into a playing-card—the queen of hearts!
At this point the Commandant excusably found himself awake, and sat up blinking at Sergeant Archelaus, who stood in a haze of fog by his bedside with a lighted candle.
"You heard it?" asked Sergeant Archelaus.
"Heard it?" echoed the Commandant, trembling, not yet in full possession of his senses. "Of course, I heard it. The Bank—." Here he checked himself and rubbed his eyes.
"You're dreaming; that's what's the matter with you," said Sergeant Archelaus, using the familiarity of an old servant. "There's a ship on the rocks."
"A ship? Where?"
The Sergeant, candle in hand, stepped to the casement, which the Commandant, following his custom, had opened a little way before getting into bed.
"Lord knows where she be by this time, if St. Ann's pilots ha'n't found her. The gun sounded from west'ard, down by the Monk."
"Fog, is it?" asked the Commandant, staring about him and remembering.
"Fog it is," answered Sergeant Archelaus, and added, "Poor souls!"
"Thick?" By this time the Commandant had flung back the bed-clothes and was thrusting his feet into his worn slippers.
"I never seen a thicker in my born days."
"If we had a gun——"
"Ah—if," agreed Sergeant Archelaus, curtly, and turning, let his voice rise in a sudden passion. "Why did I wake ye? Set it down to habit. I've known the time when the sound of a gun would have fetched forty men out of the Barracks to save life or to take it; and a gun within thirty seconds to alarm all the Islands. But we! What's the use of us?"
"Get on your coat," said the Commandant, sharply, putting on his trousers. "Get on your coat and run to the bell—that is, if Treacher——"
But at this moment the muffled note of a bell began to sound through the fog, vindicating Treacher's vigilance. Treacher, however, was not the ringer. The Commandant had scarcely slipped on his fatigue jacket, and begun to search in the wardrobe for his overcoat, when Treacher's voice sounded up the staircase, demanding to know if the garrison was awake.
"Awake?" called back Archelaus. "Of course we be, and coming before you can sound th' alarm. Reach down the bugle, man—from the rock behind th' door, there—and sound it."
Treacher sounded. He was out of breath, and the two high notes quavered broken-windedly; but the Commandant's chest swelled with something of old pride. The alarm would reach the town, and the town would know that the garrison had not been caught napping. He snatched at the candle from the candlestick in Sergeant Archelaus' hand and rammed it into the socket of a horn lantern he had unhooked from the cupboard.
"Come along, men! Keep sounding, Treacher—keep sounding!"
Even so he had called once—a many years ago—in the trenches under the Redan. Treacher sounded obediently, and down the hill all three staggered—past the garrison gates, with a call to Mrs. Treacher to pull for all she was worth—and still forward among the ruts and loose stones, all so familiar that relying on tread alone (as in fact they did) they could not miss their way. Below them, along the quay, and on the causeway at the head of it—voices were calling and lights moving; but the fog reduced the shouts to a twitter, as of birds, and the torches and lantern to mere glow-worm sparks. The coastguards were embarking and the Lord Proprietor, just arrived upon the scene, was running about—as Sergeant Archelaus put it afterwards, "like a paper man in a cyclone"—calling out the names of volunteers for the lifeboat.
If Sergeant Archelaus ever afterwards spoke disparagingly of the Lord Proprietor's activities that night, something may be forgiven him; as something may be forgiven the Lord Proprietor—for on such occasions men blurt out what rises to their lips.
The fog had found its way into Treacher's bugle before our three heroes reached the quay; but he continued to blow his best; and there, at the end of the causeway, Sir Caesar ran into them—ran straight into the Commandant, almost knocking out his breath—calling, as he ran, for someone to take bow oar in the lifeboat.
"Will I do?" asked Sergeant Archelaus, coolly, as became a soldier.
"You?" The Lord Proprietor thrust his torch close. "Oh, get out of my way—this is work to-night, work for men! And you"—catching sight of the Commandant—"how much do you think you are helping us with this tom-fool noise?"
The Commandant drew himself erect, but before he could answer, the Lord Proprietor had gone his way, waving his torch and still shouting for someone to man the bow thwart.
There was a slow pause.
"Can you get to our boat, Archelaus?" asked the Commandant. The two sergeants heard his voice drag on the question. They could not see his face.
"She's afloat, sir," answered Sergeant Archelaus.
"Find the frap then, and pull her in."
"Is it our boat you're meaning, sir?" asked Archelaus, hesitating.
"There's a certain amount of sea running, sir, out beyond the point."
"I observed as much this evening."
"Very good, sir." Something in the Commandant's voice forbade further argument.
They were afloat almost as soon as the coastguard, and a full five minutes before the life-boat. Sergeant Archelaus pulled stroke, and Sergeant Treacher bow. The Commandant steered, his lantern and pocket compass beside him in the stern sheets.
The boat—she had once been a yacht's cutter—measured sixteen feet over all. She was fitted with a small centre-plate, and carried a lug sail (but this they left behind; it was in store, and would have been worse than useless). They pulled out into a fog so thick that only by intervals could the Commandant catch sight of Sergeant Treacher's face, and Sergeant Treacher's eyebrows and sandy moustache glistering with beads of mist.
They had left the pier but a short two hundred strokes behind them when the little tug belonging to the Islands came panting out of the harbour with the lifeboat in tow, and passed on, blowing her whistle, to overtake and pick up the coastguard galley. So unexpectedly her lights sprang upon them, and so close astern that Treacher, with a sharp cry of warning—for the Commandant's gaze was fastened forward—had barely time to jerk the boat's head round and avoid being cut down. Then, dropping his paddle, he made a grab at the painter and flung it, calling out to the lifeboat's crew to catch and make fast. But either he was a moment too late in flinging, or the lifeboatmen, themselves bawling instructions to the tug's crew, were preoccupied and did not hear. The rope struck against something—the lifeboat's gunwale doubtless—but no one caught it, and next moment the tug had slipped away into darkness and into a silence which swallowed up the shouts and the throb of her engines as though she had dropped into a pit.
"Darn your skin, Sam Treacher!" swore Sergeant Archelaus. "There goes a couple of hours' pulling you might have saved us!"
"Then why couldn't you have given warning?" retorted Treacher. "Pretty pair of eyes you keep in that old head of yours!"
"Be quiet, you two!" the Commandant ordered. "They'd have caught the painter if they wanted us."
He fell silent, bending his head to study the compass in the lantern's ray. "Not wanted"—"not wanted"—the paddles took up the burden and beat it into a sort of tune to the creak of the thole-pins. As a young officer he had started with high notions of duty; nor, looking back on the wasted years could he tax himself that he had ever declined its call; only the call which in youth had always carried a promise with it, definitely clear and shining, of enterprise and reward, of adventure, achievement, fame, had sunk by degrees to a dull repetition calling him from sleep to perform the spiritless daily round. He did not sigh that the definite vision had faded; it happened so, may be, to most men, though not to all. To most men, it might be, their fate played the crimp; they followed the marsh-fires out into just such a blind waste as this through which he and his men were groping—darkness above and below; darkness before, behind, to right, to left; darkness of birth, of death, and only the palpable fog between. He did not sigh for this. What irked him was the thought that while he had followed the mill-round of duty, strength had been ebbing away and had left him useless.
Yes, there lay the sting. Twenty years ago how like a schoolboy he would have dashed into this fog, careless of consequence, eager only to find where men needed his help! He might have found, or missed; but twenty years ago men would have hailed his will to help. Now he was useless, negligible. In an ordinary way these neighbours of his might disguise their knowledge, through politeness or pity; but at a crisis like this the truth came out. The Lord Proprietor had treated him as a pantaloon, and these lifeboatmen—so little they valued him—could not be at the pains of catching a rope.
He steered, as nearly as he could calculate, west-by-south, allowing at a guess for the set of the tide. The wall of fog, which let pass no true sound, itself seemed full of voices—hissing of spent waves, sucking of water under weed-covered ledges, little puffs and moanings of the wind. He had reckoned that he was bending around shore to the south of the roadstead, heading gradually for St. Lide's Sound and giving the rocks on his port hand a wide berth; when of a sudden Archelaus called out, and he spied a grey line of breaking water—luckily the sea was full of briming to-night—at the base of the fog, quite close at hand. It scared them so that they headed off almost at right angles. This adventure not only proved his reckoning to be wrong, but complicated it hopelessly.
They were in open water again, still making—or at any rate the boat so pointed—west-by-south. The short scare had shaken him out of his brooding thoughts. He saw now, minute after minute, but the sea beyond the edge of the boat's gunwale, heaving up and sliding astern as it caught the shine of the lantern. The lantern shone also against the knees of Archelaus, and lit up the check-board pattern of the eleemosynary trousers. It was a provocative pattern, but the Commandant heeded it not....
He looked up from Sergeant Archelaus' knees to Sergeant Archelaus' face, and past it to the face of Sergeant Treacher, now a little more distinct. The two men had been pulling for an hour, and the Commandant saw that they were tired—tired and very old. He recognised it at first with a touch of anger. He felt an instant's impulse to curse and bid them row harder. But on the instant came gentle understanding, and restrained him.
"Archelaus," he said, "you are the older; take the tiller here and give me the oar for a spell."
Archelaus was not unwilling. Besides, was it not his commanding officer who gave the order? He relinquished his paddle with a grunt of exhaustion, and the Commandant stood up to take it, laying both hands on it while Archelaus stumbled past to the stern-sheets.... And at that moment a miracle befell.
The fog must have been thinning. The Commandant, standing with both hands on the paddle and his face to the bows, saw or felt it part suddenly, and through the parting lights shone and voices sounded, with the heavy throb of a vessel's screw.
Clank! clank! and it was on them, almost before Sergeant Archelaus could let out a cry—the stem, the grey-painted bows of a vast steamship, ghostly, towering up into night. A bell rang. High on the bridge—but the bridge soared into heaven—a pilot's voice called out in the Island tongue. As the great bows glided by, missing the boat by a few yards, the three men stared aloft until they had almost cricked their necks; and aloft there, as Archelaus raised his lantern, the Commandant read the vessel's name—"Milo"—glimmering in tall gilt letters.
Faces looked down from her rail, faces from the shadow of the hurricane' deck; a line of faces and all looking down upon the little Island tug that had fallen alongside and drifted close under the liner's flank, a short way abaft her red port-light. A murmur of talk went with the faces, as it were a stream rippling by, and mingled with the splash of water pouring over-side from the pumps. It sounded cheerfully, and from the voices on board the tug and in the lifeboat and galley towing astern our Commandant gathered that the danger was over. Again Sergeant Treacher hailed and flung a rope; this time the lifeboat's crew caught it and made fast.
"Reub Hicks is aboard," said a voice, naming one of the St. Ann's pilots. "He picked her up not twenty furlongs from Hell-deeps after she had missed the Little Meadows by the skin of her teeth."
"How in the name of good Providence she got near enough to miss it, being where she was, is the marvel to me," said another.
"She did, anyway," said the coxswain; "for Reub himself called down the news to me in so many words."
The Commandant gazed up at the gray shadow reaching aloft into darkness. He knew those outer reefs of which the men spoke. A touch of them would have split the plates of this tall fabric like a house of cards. He and Archelaus had witnessed one such wreck, eight years ago; had waited in broad daylight, helpless, resting on their oars, unable to approach within a cable's length of the rocks, upon which in ten minutes a steel-built five-master, of 1,200 tons, had melted to nothing before their eyes—"the rivets," as Archelaus put it, "flying out of her like shirt buttons." But that had happened on one of the outermost reefs, beyond the Off Islands, far down by the Monk Light. How the Milo, no matter from what quarter approaching, had threaded her way by the Hell-deeps was to him a mystery of mysteries. She was groping it yet, her engines working dead slow; but the fog during the past hour had sensibly lightened and Reub Hicks held open water between him and the Roads, though he still kept the lead going. At the entrance of the Roads he sent the tug forward to help the steerage, and so brought her in and rounded her up as accurately as though she had been a little schooner of two hundred tons.
As the great anchor dropped, and amid the deafening rattle of its chain in the hawse-pipe, the crew astern cast off and drew their boats alongside, eager to swarm aboard and hear news of the miracle. From his galley Mr. Rogers shouted up to the captain to lower his ladder. He and his chief boatman mounted first, with a little man named Pengelly, a custom's official, who happened to make one of the lifeboat's crew—for the Milo had come from foreign, and thus a show was made of complying with the Queen's regulations. But the whole crowd trooped up close at their heels, and with the crowd clambered Sergeant Archelaus and Sergeant Treacher.
The Commandant had given them permission. He would remain below, he said, and look after the boat, awaiting their report.
The crowd passed up and dispersed itself about the deck, congratulating all comers, and excitedly plying them with questions. The Islanders are a child-like race, and from his post at the foot of the deserted accommodation ladder the Commandant could hear them laughing, exclaiming, chattering with the passengers in high-pitched voices.
He stood with his boat-hook, holding on by the grating of the ladder's lowest step, and stared at the gray wall-sides of the liner. Yes, the ship was solid, and yet he could not believe but that she belonged to a dream; so mysteriously, against all chances, was she here, out of the deep and the night.
Someone had lashed a lantern at the head of the ladder. Lifting his eyes to it in the foggy darkness, the Commandant saw a solitary figure standing there in the gangway and looking down on him—a woman.
She lifted a hand as if to enjoin silence, and came swiftly down a step or two in the shadow of the vessel's side.
"You are Major Vigoureux?" she asked in a quick whisper, leaning forward over him.
"At your service, madam," he stammered, taken fairly aback.
"Ah! I am glad of that!" She ran down the remaining steps and set her foot lightly on the boat's gunwale. "You will row me ashore?"
"If you wish it, madam." He was more puzzled than ever. He saw that she wore a dark cloak of fur and was bare-headed. She spoke in a sort of musical whisper. Her face he could not see. "In a minute or two my men——"
"We will not wait for your men," she said, quietly, seating herself in the stern sheets. "They can easily be put ashore—can they not?—in one of the other boats."
From under her fur cloak she reached out an arm—a bare arm with two jewelled bracelets—and took the tiller. "I can steer you to the quay," she said, and leaning forward in the light of Sergeant Archelaus' lantern, she lifted her eyes to the Commandant.
The Commandant pushed off, shipped the paddles into the thole pins, and began to row, as in a dream.
HOW VASHTI CAME TO THE ISLANDS
"You do not remember me, Major Vigoureux?"
The Commandant looked at her, across the lantern's ray. Something in her voice, vibrating like the rich, full note of a bell, touched his memory ... but only to elude it.
The face that challenged him was not girlish; the face, rather, of a beautiful woman of thirty; its shape a short oval, with a slight squareness at the point of the jaw to balance the broad forehead over which her hair (damp now, but rippled with a natural wave, defying the fog) lay parted in two heavy bands—the brow of a goddess. Her eyes, too, would have become a goddess, though just now they condescended to be merry.
Tall she was, for certain, and commanding. Her cloak hid the lines of her body, whether they were thin or ample; but, where the collar opened, her throat showed like a pillar, carrying her chin upon a truly noble poise. It was inconceivable (the Commandant said to himself) that he had met this woman before and forgotten her.
He came back to her eyes. They challenged him fearlessly. He could not have described their colour; but he saw amusement lurking deep in their glooms while she waited.
"I am sorry. It is unpardonable in me, of course——"
"And I, on the contrary, am glad," she interrupted, with a laugh that reminded him of the liquid chuckle in a thrush's song, or of water swirling down a deep pool; "for it tells me I have grown out of recognition, and that is just what I wanted."
This puzzled him, and he frowned a little.
"You know the Islands?" he asked. "This is not your first visit?"
"You shall judge if in this darkness I steer you straight for St. Lide's Quay; and I take you to witness—look over your shoulder—there is no lamp on the quay-head to guide me, or at least none visible." She laughed again, but on the instant grew serious. "Yes," she added, "I can find my way among the Islands, I thank God." And this puzzled him yet more.
"You know the Islands; you are glad to return to them?"
"Yet you do not wish to be recognised?"
She nodded again. "I came, you see, sooner than I intended. The Milo was clean out of her course."
"That goes without saying," said he, gravely.
"She was bound for Plymouth. So, you see, this little misadventure has shortened my journey by days." She paused. "No; I ought not to speak of it flippantly. I shall be very thankful in my prayers to-night ... all those women and children...."
Again she paused.
"Is my hand trembling?" she asked, lifting it and laying it again on the tiller, where it rested firm as a rock. Only the jewels quivered on her rings and bracelets, and their beauty, arresting the Commandant's gaze, held him silent.
"To be frank with you," she went on, "I left the ship in a hurry, because I was afraid of being thanked. I don't like publicity—much; and just now it would have spoiled everything." This explanation enlightened the Commandant not at all. "Besides," she added with a practical air, "I left a note with my maid, to be given to the captain; so he won't imagine that I've tumbled overboard; and she can send my boxes ashore to-morrow, if you will be kind enough to fetch them before the Milo weighs."
"But, meanwhile?" he hazarded.
"Oh, meanwhile, I must manage somehow for the night. I slipped a few things into my hand-bag here." She drew her fur cloak a little aside, and displayed it—a small satchel hanging from her waist by a silver chain. The Commandant had a glimpse at the same moment of a skirt of rose-coloured silk, brocaded in a pattern of silver.
"And when we land," he asked, "where am I to take you?"
"I am in your hands."
He stared at her, dismayed. "But you have friends?"
"None who would remember me; not a soul, at least, in St. Lide's."
"There is the Plume of Feathers Inn, to be sure——"
"If you recommend it," she said, demurely, as he hesitated.
He almost lost his temper. "Recommend it? Of course I don't."
"Well, from what I remember of the Plume of Feathers—unless it has altered——"
"Wouldn't it be wiser to turn back?" he suggested, desperately, staring into the fog, in which the lights of the Milo had long since disappeared.
"What? When we have this moment opened the quay-light? There!... didn't I promise you that I knew my way among the Islands?"
In the basin of the harbour the fog lay thicker than in the roads, and they had scarcely made sure that this was indeed the quay-light before their boat grated against the landing-steps of the quay itself. The Commandant, after he had shipped his oars and checked the way on her, pressing both hands against the dripping wall, put up one of them and passed the back of it slowly across his forehead. He was considering; and, while he considered, his companion stepped lightly ashore. "Forgive me," he pleaded, recollecting himself. "At least, I should have offered you my hand."
"Thank you, I did not need it."
"But listen, please," he protested, scrambling out upon the steps, painter in hand, and groping for a ring-bolt. "You cannot possibly stay the night at the Plume of Feathers——"
He heard her laugh, as he stooped, having found the ring, to make fast the rope.
"Commandant, have you ever travelled across Wyoming—in winter, in a waggon? Very well, then; I have."
"Surely not in the clothes you are wearing?" The Commandant, as any one in the Council of Twelve could tell you, was no debater; yet sometimes he had been known to triumph even in debate, by sheer simplicity. "The only course that I can see," he continued, "is to seek some private house, and throw ourselves upon the—er—"
"Front door?" she suggested, mischievously.
"—hospitality—upon the hospitality of the inmates. To them, of course, I can explain the situation——"
The Commandant stood for a moment peering at her, and rubbing the back of his head—a trick of his in perplexity. "Upon my word, now you come to mention it," he confessed, "I don't know that I can."
"Whom shall we try first? Miss Gabriel?" ("Now, how in the world," wondered the Commandant, "does she know anything of Miss Gabriel?") "Very well; we go together to Alma Cottage—she still lives at Alma Cottage?—and knock. The hour is two in the morning, or thereabouts. Miss Gabriel, overcoming her first fear of robbery or murder, will parley with us from her bedroom window. To her you introduce me, by the light of your lantern; a strange female in an evening frock; a female grossly overladen with jewels (that, I think, would be Miss Gabriel's way of putting it), but without a portmanteau."
"We might try the Popes, next door," suggested the Commandant flinching. "Mr. Pope is a man of the world."
"Is he?" she asked, after a pause, in which he felt that she struggled with some inward mirth. "But we cannot so describe Mrs. Pope, can we? Also we cannot knock up Mr. and Mrs. Pope without disturbing Miss Gabriel next door."
"Nor, for that matter, can we knock up Miss Gabriel without disturbing Mr. and Mrs. Pope."
"Quite so; we may reckon that all three will be listening. Therefore, when Mr. Pope or Miss Gabriel (as the case may be) begins by demanding my name—which, by an oversight, you have forgotten to ask——"
"Pardon me," said the Commandant, simply, "I did not forget. I waited, supposing that if you wished me to know it, you would tell me."
"Ah!" she drew close to him, with a happy exclamation. "Then I was not mistaken: You are the man I have counted to find.... And you are a brave man, too. But we will not push bravery too far and disturb Miss Gabriel."
"If you can suggest a better plan——"
"A far better plan. I suggest that you offer me a room to-night at the garrison."
"My dear madam!" the Commandant gasped.
"It will be far better in every way," she went on composedly; that is, if you are willing. To begin with, you have rooms and to spare. Next, there will be no bother in introducing me, except to Mrs. Treacher."
"Ah, to be sure, there is Mrs. Treacher!" the Commandant murmured. "But, madam, all the rooms in the Castle are unfurnished, ruinous, and have been ruinous for fifty years. The Treachers occupy the only two in which it were possible to swing a cat."
"Then we must borrow Mrs. Treacher and take her along to the Barracks for chaperon. You may leave it to me to persuade her."
Without waiting for his answer she ran lightly up the steps, the heels of her rose-coloured satin shoes twinkling in the light of the Commandant's lantern as he blundered after her.
The pavement of the quay had not been laid for satin shoes. Much traffic had worn the surface into depressions, and these depressions were fast collecting water from the drenched air. But although the fog lay almost as thick here as at the foot of the steps, she picked her way among these pitfalls, avoiding them as though by instinct. Beyond the quay came a cobbled causeway; and beyond the causeway a narrow street wound up towards the garrison gate. Past rains, pouring down the hill, had worn a deep rut along this street, ploughing it here and there to the native rock, zig-zagging from centre to side of the roadway and back again obedient to the trend of the slope. But over the causeway, and up the channelled street she found her footing with the same confidence, steering far more cleverly than the Commandant, who followed as in a dream, amazed, oppressed with forebodings. It was all very well for her to talk lightly of persuading Mrs. Treacher. If she could, why then she must be possessed of a secret as yet unrevealed to Mrs. Treacher's husband after thirty-odd years of married life. The Commandant, too, knew something of Mrs. Treacher ... an obstinate woman, not to say pig-headed.