PEARL OF PEARL ISLAND
BY JOHN OXENHAM
HODDER AND STOUGHTON PUBLISHERS LONDON 1908
TO MY WIFE
PART THE FIRST PEARL PART THE SECOND LOST PEARL PART THE THIRD PEARL ISLAND PART THE FOURTH PEARL OF PEARL ISLAND PART THE FIFTH PEARL IN A RING PART THE SIXTH SMALLER PEARLS
PEARL OF THE PEARL OF THE SILVER SEA!
PEARL Iridescent! Pearl of the sea!
Shimmering, glimmering Pearl of the sea! White in the sun-flecked silver sea, White in the moon-decked silver sea, White in the wrath of the silver sea,— Pearl of the Silver Sea! Lapped in the smile of the Silver Sea, Ringed in the foam of the Silver Sea, Glamoured in mists of the Silver Sea,— Pearl of the Silver Sea! Glancing and glimmering under the sun, Jewel and casket all in one, Joy supreme of the sun's day-dream, Soft in the gleam of the golden beam,— Pearl of the Silver Sea! Splendour of Hope in the rising sun, Glory of Love in the noonday sun, Wonder of Faith in the setting sun,— Pearl of the Silver Sea!
Gaunt and grim to the outer world, Jewel and casket all impearled With the kiss of the Silver Sea!— With the flying kiss of the Silver Sea, With the long sweet kiss of the Silver Sea, With the rainbow kiss of the Silver Sea,—
Pearl of the Silver Sea! And oh the sight,—the wonderful sight, When calm and white, in the mystic light, Of her quivering pathway, broad and bright, The Queen of the Night, in silver dight, Sails over the Silver Sea!
Wherever I go, and wherever I be, The joy and the longing are there with me,— The gleam And the glamour come back to me,— In a mystical rapture there comes to me, The call of the Silver Sea! As needle to pole is my heart to thee, Pearl of the Silver Sea!
Pearl of the Pearl of the Silver Sea! To some you are Margaret, but to me, Always and ever, wherever I be, You are Pearl of the Pearl of the Silver Sea!
PART THE FIRST
NOTE.—It would be impossible to depict the Sark of to-day without using the names native to the Island. All such names here employed, however, are used without any reference whatever to any actual persons who may happen to bear similar names in Sark. The characters are to be taken as types. The incidents are in many cases fact.
If you want murders, mysteries, or mud—pass on! This is a simple, straightforward love-story.
"Jock, my lad," said Lady Elspeth softly, nodding her head very many times, in that very knowing way of hers which made her look like a Lord Chief Justice and a Fairy Godmother all in one, "I've found you out."
And when the shrewd old soul of her looked him gently through and through in that fashion, he knew very much better than to attempt any evasion.
"Ah!" he said meekly, "I was afraid someone would, sooner or later. I've been living in constant dread of it. But it's happened before, you know, between you and me. What is it this time, dear Lady Elspeth?"
"Here have I been imputing grace to you for your kindly attentions to a poor old woman whose race is nearly run, and setting you up above the rest of them therefor, and lo, my idol——"
"Ah!" he said again, with a reproving wag of the head, for he knew now what was coming,—"idols are perverse, camstairy things at best, you know, and a bit out of date too. And, besides,"—with a touch of remonstrance—"at your age and with your bringing-up——"
"Ay, ay, ye may be as insulting as ye choose, my laddie, and fling my age and my upbringing in my face like a very man——"
"There isn't a face like it in all England, and as to——"
"I prefer ye to say Britain, as I've told ye before. Your bit England is only a portion of the kingdom, and in very many respects the poorest portion, notably in brains and manners and beauty. But ye cannot draw me off like that, my laddie, whether it's meant for a compliment or no. I was just about telling you you were a fraud——"
"You hadn't got quite that length, you know, but——"
"Will I prove it to you? Haven't you been coming here as regular as the milkman for a month past——"
"Oh, come now!—Only once a day. I've an idea milkie comes twice, and besides——"
"And what did ye come for, my lad?" with an emphatic nod and a menacing shake of the frail white hand, pricelessly jewelled above, comfortably black-silk-mittened below. "Tell me that now! What did ye come for?"
"To see the dearest old lady in England—Britain, I mean. And—"
"Yes?—And?—" and she watched him, with her head a little on one side and her eyes shining brightly, like an expectant motherly robin hopping on treasure trove.
He smiled back at her and said nothing. He knew she knew without his telling.
"And so I was only second fiddle—" she began, with an assumption of scornful irascibility which became her less than her very oldest cap.
"Oh, dear me, no! Leader of the orchestra!—Proprietor of the house!—Sole director and manager and—"
"Tuts! It was Margaret Brandt you came to see," and the twinkling brown eyes held the merry gray ones with a steady challenge.
"Partly,—and I was just about to say so when you interrupted me—"
"Ay! Were you now? Ye can out with things quick enough at times, my laddie!"
"Well, you see, there are some things one does not speak about until one feels one has an absolute right to."
"You'd have told your mother, Jock."
"Perhaps, I'm not sure,—not yet—not, at all events, until—"
"And wasn't I to take her place when she left you all alone?"
"And so you have. You're just the dearest and sweetest old—"
"Second fiddle! Come away and we'll talk of Margaret, since that's all you come for."
"And isn't she worth coming for? Did you ever in all your life see anything more wonderful than Margaret Brandt?"
And she looked at him for half a minute with a twinkle in the shrewd old eyes, which had surely seen many strange and wonderful things since the first wonders passed and gave place to the common things of life. Beautiful eyes they were still,—of a very tender brown, and shining always with kindly feeling and deepest interest in the person she was talking to.
I do not know how it may be with you, but, personally, I detest people whose eyes and thoughts go wandering away over your left shoulder while you are talking with them. It may be, of course, that you are not much of a talker and are simply boring them, but, all the same, mental squinters are not to my liking.
But Lady Elspeth was never bored—visibly, at all events, and while you talked with her you were the one person in the world in whom she was interested.
Margaret's eyes had something of the same in them, but they were very deep blue, and there was in them just that touch of maidenly reserve which best becomes a maiden's eyes, until, to one at all events, she may lay it aside and let her heart shine through.
Lady Elspeth looked at him, then, for half a minute, with a starry twinkle, and then said, with a finality of conviction that made her dearer to him than ever—
"Never!" and he kissed her hand with fervour,—and not ungracefully, since the action, though foreign to him, was absolutely spontaneous.
"But—!" she said firmly. And he sat up.
"But me no buts," he said. "And why?"
"Well, you see, Margaret is by way of being an heiress—and you are not."
"I'm sorry. But, you see, I couldn't very well be if I tried. Still I'm not absolutely penniless, and—"
"Tuts, boy! What you have is just about enough to pay Jeremiah Pixley's servants' wages."
"D-hang Jeremiah Pixley!"
"D-hang is not a nice expression to use before a lady, let me tell you. What you have, as, I was saying, is just enough to make or mar you—"
"It's going to make me. I can live on it till things begin to come my way."
"Everyone writes nowadays," she said, with a dubious shake of the head. "Who reads all the books passes my comprehension. I suppose you have all just to buy one another's to make a bit of a living out of it."
"Like those washing people! But it's not quite as bad as all that. There are still some intelligent people who buy books—good books, of course, I mean."
"Not many, I'm afraid. They read reviews and chatter as though they'd read the books. And if they really want to read them they get them out of a library. You don't see bought books lying on the tables, as you used to do when I was a girl, and they were scarcer and dearer. How is this last one going?"
"I have reason to believe my publishers are not absolutely broken-hearted over it, which leads me to think that they have probably done pretty well out of it. They are not what you might call a gushing race, you know, but they have given me a kind of cautious half-hint that they might not refuse to look at my next if I offered it to them on my bended knees. But let us get back to our—to Miss Brandt. I had no idea she was an heiress. I have really never thought of money in the matter, except as to how I could earn enough to offer it to her."
"She has a fair portion—about two thousand a year, I believe. Her father was Danish Consul in Glasgow, and had a shipping business there. I should not be surprised if Mr. Pixley had views of his own concerning Margaret's portion and his son—and of course Margaret herself."
"Will you permit me to say, 'Hang Mr. Pixley!' dear Lady Elspeth? It would be such a relief—if you're sure you don't mind."
"You may say 'Hang Mr. Pixley!' though it is not an expression I am in the habit of using myself. But please don't begin it with a D."
"Hang Mr. Pixley, and Mr. Pixley's son, and all his intentions!" he said fervently and with visible relish.
"Yes," she nodded slowly, as though savouring it; and then added, with a delicious twinkle of the soft brown eyes, "There is something in that that appeals to me. Jeremiah Pixley is almost too good for this world. At least—"
"He is absolutely unwholesomely good. My own private opinion is that he's a disreputable old blackg—I mean whited sepulchre."
"Unwholesomely good!" She nodded again. "Yes,—that, I think, very fairly expresses him. 'Unco' guid,' we would say up north. But, all the same, he is Margaret's uncle and guardian and trustee. He is also the kind of man whom nothing can turn from a line he has once adopted."
"I know. Pigheaded as a War-Office-mule," he side-tracked hastily.
For she had looked at him with a momentary bristle of enquiry in the gentle brown eyes, and he remembered, just in time, that her husband had once held the reins in Pall Mall for half a year, when, feeling atrophy creeping on, he resigned office and died three months later.
He hastened to add,—"The ordinary Army-mule, you know, is specially constructed with a cast-iron mouth, and a neck of granite, and a disposition like—like Mr. Pixley's. I imagine Mr. Pixley can be excessively unpleasant when he tries. To me he is excessively unpleasant even to think of, and without any exertion whatever on his part."
"Yes. Mrs. Pixley would rather convey that impression. She is always depressed and apprehensive-looking. But she is very fond of Margaret, and that no doubt is why—But I suppose she really has no choice in the matter, until she comes of age—"
"Until Margaret comes into her own she is no doubt obliged to submit to her guardian's views. It is difficult to imagine anyone not a Pixley living in the Pixley atmosphere of their own free will. What is the son like? I have only seen him once or twice. Does he take after his father?"
"He's about twice as tall, and several times as wide in some respects, I should say,—certainly in the matter of the enjoyment of life. He's not bad-looking—in a kind of a way, you know,—that is, for those who like that kind of looks,—a trifle fleshy perhaps. But he's a fair dancer, and sings a song well, and can talk about nothing as nicely as any man I ever met. It's an accomplishment I often envy."
"I wouldn't trouble about it, if I were you. There are things more worth doing in the world. And that reminds me. We were talking of your books. I've been wanting to tell you that your love-scenes are not altogether to my liking. They are just a little—well, not quite—"
"Yes, I know," he said sadly. "You see, I lack experience in such things. Now, if Margaret—"
"Don't tell me you want to use her simply as a model," she began, with another incipient gentle bristle.
"I want her as a model and a great many other things besides, dear Lady Elspeth. I love Margaret Brandt with every atom of good that is in me."
"And she?" with a nod and a sparkle.
"Ah! There now—that's what I don't know. She's not one to wear her heart on her sleeve. At times I have dared to hope. Then again I have feared—"
"That is quite right. That is quite as it should be. Anything more, so early as this, would imply unmaidenliness on her part."
"Truly? You mean it? You are, without exception, the most charming old lady in the world! You relieve my mind immensely. You see, she is always so sweet and charming. But then she could not be anything else, and it may really mean nothing. Do you really think I may hope?"
"'White-handed Hope, thou hovering angel, girt with golden wings,'" she quoted, with a smile.
"That's Margaret," he murmured rapturously.
"It's a poor kind of man that gives up hope until he lies in his coffin, and even then—" and she nodded thoughtfully, as though tempted to a descent into metaphysics.
"Let us talk of bridal wreaths. They are very much nicer to think of than coffins when one is discussing Margaret Brandt."
"She is very sweet and very beautiful—"
"There never was anyone like her in this world—unless it was my mother and yourself."
"Let Margaret be first with you, my boy. That also is as it should be. Neither your dear mother nor I stand in need of empty compliments. Margaret Brandt is worthy any good man's whole heart, and perhaps I can be of some help to you. But, all the same, remember what I've said. You may be too late in the field."
"You are just the splendidest old lady in the world," he said exuberantly; and added, with a touch of gloom, "She was talking of going off to the Riviera."
"Ah, then, I suppose I shall be in eclipse also, until she returns."
"Oh no, you won't. We can talk of her, you know," at which Lady Elspeth's eyes twinkled merrily.
"What would you say to convoying a troublesome old lady to the Riviera, yourself, Jock?"
"You?" and he jumped up delightedly,—and just at that point old Hamish opened the door of the cosy room, and announced—
"Miss Brandt, mem!"
"Miss Brandt, mem!" announced old Hamish, in as dry and matter-of-fact a voice as though it were only, "Here's the doctor, mem!" or "Dinner's ready, mem!" and Margaret herself came in, rosy-faced and bright-eyed from the kiss of the wind outside.
Lady Elspeth laughed enjoyably at the sight of her, and touched the bell for tea.
"You are always like a breath from the heather to me, my dear, or a glimpse of Schiehallion," said she, as they kissed, and Graeme stood reverently looking on, as at a holy rite.
"Oh, surely I'm not as rugged and wrinkled as all that!" laughed Margaret. "And I certainly am not bald. How do you do, Mr. Graeme?"
"There is no need to ask you that question, at any rate," he said, with visible appreciation.
"I have loved Schiehallion all my life," said Lady Elspeth. "To me there is no mountain in the world to compare with it. You see how one's judgment is biassed by one's affections. And how is Mrs. Pixley to-day, my dear?"
"She is much as usual, dear Lady Elspeth. She is never very lively, you know. If anything, I think she is, perhaps, a trifle less lively than usual just now."
"And Mr. Pixley is as busied in good works as ever, I suppose."
"As busy as ever—outside,"—at which gentle thrust the others smiled.
"It's all very well to laugh," remonstrated Margaret, "but truly, you know, philanthropy, like charity, would be none the less commendable to its relations if it sometimes remembered that it had a home. I sometimes think that if ever there was a deserving case it is poor Aunt Susan."
"And young Mr. Pixley? Doesn't he liven you up?" asked Lady Elspeth. "He is very good company, I am told."
"Oh, Charles is excellent company. If we didn't see him now and again the house would be like a tomb. But he's not there all the time, and we have relapses. He has his own rooms elsewhere, you know. And I'm really not surprised. It taxes even him to lighten the deadly dulness of Melgrave Square."
"It must be a great comfort to Mrs. Pixley to have you with her, my dear."
"I can't make up for all she lacks in other directions," said Margaret, with a shake of the head. "I get quite angry with Uncle Jeremiah sometimes. He is so—so absorbed in benefiting other people that he—Well, you can understand how delightful it is to be able to run in here and find the sun always shining."
"Thank you, my dear," said Lady Elspeth, with a twinkle in the brown eyes. "Some people carry their own sunshine with them wherever they go."
"And some people decidedly don't," said Margaret, who was evidently suffering from some unusual exhibition of Pixleyism.
"It is generally possible to find a ray or so somewhere about, if you know where to look for it," suggested Graeme.
"I was just accusing Jock of coming here as regularly as the milkman," twinkled Lady Elspeth.
"We have a community of tastes, you see," he said, looking across at Margaret. "I also have a craving for sunshine, and I naturally come where I know it is to be found," and Lady Elspeth's eyes twinkled knowingly again.
"It's a good conceit of myself I'll be getting, if you two go on like this."
"I'm quite sure you will never think half as well of yourself as your friends do," said Graeme.
"Besides, you might even pass some of the credit on to us for the excellent taste we display."
"Ay, ay! Well, it's good to be young," said Lady Elspeth.
"And it's very good to have delightful old sunbeams for friends."
"To say nothing of the young ones," laughed the old lady.
"They speak for themselves."
"We are becoming quite a mutual admiration society," said Margaret. "Have you been dining with your fellow Friars lately, Mr. Graeme?"
"I'm sorry to say I've been neglecting my privileges in that respect. I haven't been there for an age—not since that last Ladies' Dinner, in fact. You see, I'm an infant there yet, and I scarcely know anybody, and I've been very busy—"
"Chasing sunbeams," suggested Lady Elspeth.
"And other things."
"You are busy on another book?" asked Margaret.
"Just getting one under way. It takes a little time to get things into proper shape, but once it is going, the work is very absorbing and sheer delight. You were talking of going abroad again. Are you still thinking of it?"
"I was hoping to get away. I wanted Aunt Susan to come with me to the Riviera, but she flatly refuses to leave home at present, so I'm afraid that's off."
"Well, now, that's curious. I've been feeling something of an inclination that way myself," said Lady Elspeth. "I wonder if you'd feel like coming with me, Margaret. I don't believe we would quarrel."
"Oh, I would be delighted, dear Lady Elspeth, and I'll promise not to quarrel whatever you do to me."
"Who ever heard of sunbeams quarrelling?" said Graeme gaily, with Lady Elspeth's earlier suggestion to himself dancing in his brain. "But think of London left utterly sunless."
"London will never miss us," said Margaret. "It still has bridge, and we are neither of us players."
And then, having an appointment from which he could not escape, and knowing that they always enjoyed a little personal chat, he reluctantly took his leave, and left them to the discussion of their new plans.
He had met Margaret Brandt for the first time at a Ladies' Banquet of the Whitefriars Club.
Providence,—I insist upon this. No mere chance set them next to one another at that hospitable board,—Providence, forecasting the future, placed them side by side, and he was introduced to her by his good friend Adam Black, who had the privilege of her acquaintance and sat opposite enjoying them greatly.
For they were both eminently good to look upon;—Margaret, tall and slender, and of a most gracious figure and bearing, with thoughtful, dark-blue eyes, a very charming face accentuated by the characteristics of her northern descent, and a wealth of shining brown hair coiled about her shapely head;—Graeme, tall, clean-built, of an outdoor complexion, with nothing of the student about him save his deep, reflective eyes, and the little lines in the corners which wrinkled up so readily at the overflowing humours of life.
It was Charles Pixley—Charles Svendt Pixley, to accord him fullest justice, which I am most anxious to do—who brought her, and to that extent we are his debtors.
Though why Pixley should be a Whitefriar passes one's comprehension. His pretensions to literature were, I should say, bounded by his Stock Exchange notebook and his betting-book. He had not even read Graeme's latest, though it was genuinely in its second—somewhat limited—edition, and he did not even smile affably when Adam Black introduced them. Graeme, however, had no fault to find with him for that. There were others in like dismal case.
Pixley nodded cursorily at the introduction, with a "How-d'ye-do-who-the-deuce-are-you?" expression on his face. He struck Graeme as not bad-looking, in a somewhat over-fed and self-indulgent fashion, and inclined to superciliousness and self-complacency, if not to actual superiority and condescension. It occurred to him afterwards that this might arise from his absorption in his companion, for he turned again at once to Miss Brandt and began chattering like a lively and intelligent parrot.
Graeme was one of the silent and observant ones, and he could not but think how beneficent Nature is in casting us in many moulds. If we were all built alike, he thought, and all dribbled smart inanities, and nothing but inanities, with the glibness of a Charles Pixley, what a world it would be!
However, it was Charles Pixley who brought Margaret Brandt to that dinner, and Graeme sat on the other side of her there. And so, Charles Svendt—blessings on thee, unworthy friar though thou be!
And presently, Miss Brandt, wearying no doubt of perdrix, perdrix, toujours perdrix,—that is to say of Charles's sprightly chatter, of which she doubtless got more than enough at home,—essayed conversation with the silent one at her other side, and, one may suppose, found it more to her taste, or more of a novelty, than the Pixley outflow.
For, once started, she and Graeme talked together most of the evening—breaking off reluctantly to drink various toasts to people in whom they had, at the moment, no remotest interest whatever, and recovering the thread of their conversation before they resumed their seats.
Only one toast really interested Graeme, and that was "The Ladies—the Guests of the Evening"; and that he drank right heartily, with his eyes on Miss Brandt's sparkling face, and if it had been left to himself he would have converted it from plural to singular and drunk to her alone.
Adam Black, excellent fellow, and gifted beyond most with wisdom and insight, and the condensed milk of human kindness, took upon himself the burden of Pixley, and engaged that eminent financier so deeply in talk concerning matters of import, that Miss Brandt and Graeme found themselves at liberty to enjoy one another to their hearts' content.
They talked on many subjects—tentatively, and as sounding novel depths—in a way that occasioned one of them, at all events, very great surprise. Indeed, it seemed to him afterwards that, for a silent and observant man, he had been led into quite unwonted, but none the less very enjoyable, ways. He went home that night feeling very much as Columbus must have done when his New World swam before his eyes in misted glory. He too had sighted a new world. He had discovered Margaret Brandt.
She had travelled widely over Europe, he learned, and was looking forward with eagerness to another tour in the near future. They discovered a common liking for many of the places she had visited.
She was a wide and intelligent reader. To him it was a rare pleasure to meet one.
"New places, and new books, and new people are always a joy to me," she said, in a glow of naive enthusiasm. And then she blushed slightly lest he should discover a personal application in the last-named, or even in the last two.
But Graeme was thinking of her, and was formulating her character from the delicious little bits of self-revelation which slipped out every now and again.
"Yes," he said, "new things are very enjoyable, and in these times there is no lack of them. The tendency, I should say, is towards superfluity. But new places——! There are surely not many left except the North Pole and the South. Everybody goes everywhere nowadays, and you tumble over friends in Damascus and find your tailor picnicking on the slopes of Lebanon."
Now, as it chanced,—if you admit such a thing as chance in so tangled a coil as this complex world of ours,—Adam Black had just tucked Charles Pixley into a close little argumentative corner, and given him food for contemplation, and catching Graeme's last remark, he smiled across the table, and in a word of four letters dropped a seed into several lives which bore odd fruit and blossom.
"Ever been to Sark, Graeme?" he asked.
"Sark? No. Let me see——"
"Channel Islands. You go across from Guernsey. If ever you want relief from your fellows—to finish a book, or to start one, or just to grizzle and find yourself—try Sark. It's the most wonderful little place, and it's amazing how few people know it."
Then Charles Pixley bethought him of a fresh line of argument, and engaged Black, and was promptly shown the error of his ways; and Margaret Brandt and Graeme resumed their discussion of places and books and people. And before that evening ended, with such affinity of tastes, their feet were fairly set in the rosy path of friendship.
Now that is how it all began, and that explains what happened afterwards when the right time came.
Chance, forsooth! We know better.
Not long after that dinner, Lady Elspeth Gordon came up to town for the first time after her husband's death.
She had been John Graeme's mother's closest friend, and when he was left alone in the world, the dear old lady, before she had fully recovered from her own sore loss, took upon herself a friendly supervision of him and his small affairs, and their intercourse was very delightful.
For Lady Elspeth knew everybody worth knowing, and all that was to be known about the rest; and those gentle brown eyes of hers had missed little of what had gone on around her since she first came to London, fifty years before. She had known Wellington, and Palmerston, and John Russell, and Disraeli, and Gladstone, and Louis Napoleon, and Garibaldi, and many more. She was a veritable golden link with the past, and a storehouse of reminiscence and delightful insight into human nature.
And—since she knew everyone worth knowing, Graeme very soon discovered that she knew Margaret Brandt, and Miss Brandt's very frequent visits to Phillimore Gardens proved that she was an acceptable visitor there.
Upon that, his own visits to Lady Elspeth naturally became still more frequent than before,—approximating even, as she had said, the record of the milkman,—and, though his dear old friend might rate him gently as to the motives for his coming, he had every reason to believe that her sympathies were with him, and that she would do what she could to further his hopes.
He had never, however, openly discussed Margaret with her until that afternoon of which I have already spoken.
Miss Brandt, you see, was always most graciously kind and charming whenever they met. But that was just her natural self. She was charming and gracious to everyone—even to Charles Pixley, the while he swamped her with inane tittle-tattle, and higher proof of grace than that it would be difficult to imagine.
And, since she was charming to all, Graeme felt that he could base no solid hopes on her gracious treatment of himself, though the quiet recollection of every smallest detail of it would set him all aglow with hope for days after each chance meeting. And so he had never ventured to discuss the matter with Lady Elspeth, and would not have done so that afternoon had she not herself opened it.
The dear old lady's encouragement, however, deepened and strengthened his hopes, in spite of her insidious hints concerning Mr. Pixley's possible intentions. For she was a shrewd, shrewd woman, and those soft brown eyes of hers saw far and deep. And, since she bade him hope, hope he would, though every brick in London town became a Pixley set on thwarting him.
The fact of Margaret's means being, for the present at all events, so much larger than his own, he would not allow to trouble him. It was Margaret herself he wanted, and had wanted long before he heard she had money. The troublesome accident of her possessions should not come between them if he could help it. He did not for one moment believe she would ever think so ill of him as to believe that he wanted her for anything but herself. And in any case, if kind Providence bestowed her upon him, he would insist on her money being all settled on herself absolutely and irrevocably.
Since that never-to-be-forgotten dinner, they had come across one another at Lady Elspeth's with sufficient frequency to open the eyes of that astute old lady to the heart-state of one of them at all events. Possibly she knew more of the heart and mind of the other than she cared to say in plain words; but, as a woman, she would naturally abide by the rules of the game. In the smaller games of life it is woman's privilege, indeed, to stretch and twist all rules to suit her own convenience, but in this great game of love, woman stands by woman and the womanly rules of the game—unless, indeed, she craves the stakes for herself, in which case——
And so—although Lady Elspeth favoured him, that afternoon, only with vague generalities as to the pleasures of hope, and afforded him no solid standing-ground for the sole of his hopeful foot, but left him to discover that for himself, as was only right and proper—his heart stood high, and he looked forward with joyous anticipation to the future.
The radiant sun of all his rosy heavens was Margaret Brandt, and he would not for one moment admit the possibility of its clouding by anything of the name of Pixley.
Graeme had not the entree of the Pixley mansion.
Mr. Pixley he knew, by repute only, as the head of Pixley's, the great law-firm, in Lincoln's Inn. Mrs. Pixley he had never met.
Mr. Pixley was a bright and shining light—yea, a veritable light-house—of respectability and benevolence, and bushel coverings were relegated to their proper place outside his scheme of life. His charities were large, wide-spread, religiously advertised in the donation columns of the daily papers, and doubtless palliated the effects of multitudes of other people's sins.
He was a church-warden, president and honorary treasurer of numerous philanthropical societies—in a word, at once a pillar and corner-stone of his profession, his church, and his country.
He was also a smug little man with a fresh, well-fed face, bordered by a touch of old-fashioned, gray side-whisker, rather outstanding blue eyes, and he carried, and sometimes used as it was intended to be used, a heavy gold pince-nez, which more frequently, however, acted as a kind of lightning-conductor for the expression of his feelings. A pince-nez of many parts:—now it was a scalping-knife, slaughtering the hopes of some harried victim of the law; and again, it was a baton beating time to a hymn or the National Anthem; possibly it was, in moments of relaxation, a jester's wand poking fun at ancient cronies, though indeed a somewhat full-blooded imagination is required for that. I have heard that once when, in the fervour of a speech, Mr. Pixley dropped his pince-nez among the reporters below, he was utterly unable to continue until the fetish was recovered and handed back to him. It is an undoubted fact that though you might forget the exact lines of Mr. Pixley's face and even his words, you never forgot the fascinating evolutions of his heavy gold pince-nez. Like a Frenchman's hands, it told even more than his face or his words.
He had a good voice, and a deportment which had, without doubt, been specially created for the chairmanship of public meetings. And he was Margaret Brandt's uncle by marriage, her guardian and trustee, and the father of Charles Svendt, on whose account Lady Elspeth had thought well to throw out warning hints of possible paternal intentions respecting Margaret and her fortune.
From every point of view Graeme detested Mr. Pixley, though he had never passed a word with him. He was too perfect, too immaculate. His "unco' guidness," as Lady Elspeth would have said, bordered on ostentation. The sight and sound of him aroused in some people a wild inclination towards unaccustomed profanity and wallowing in the mire. He was so undisguisedly and self-satisfiedly better than his fellows that one felt his long and flawless life almost in the nature of a rebuke if not an affront. He was too obtrusively good for this world. One could not but feel that if he had been cut off in his youth, and buried under a very white marble slab and an appropriate inscription, both he and the world would have been far more comfortably circumstanced. And John Graeme devoutly wished he had been so favoured, for, in that case, he could neither have been Margaret's uncle, trustee, nor guardian, and it is possible that there would also have been no Charles Svendt Pixley to trouble the course of his own true love.
But of Charles Svendt I have no harsh word to say. He could not help being his father's son, and one must not blame him for the unavoidable. And, in most respects, he was as unlike his worthy parent as circumstances permitted.
He was on the Stock Exchange and doing well there. He had very comfortable rooms near St. James's Square, and enjoyed life in his own way and at his own not inconsiderable expense. When Margaret Brandt was at home, however, he was much at his father's house in Melgrave Square.
He made no pretence to unco' guidness whatever. He subscribed to nothing outside the House, with two exceptions—the Dogs' Home at Battersea, and the Home of Rest for Aged Horses at Acton—signs of grace both these offerings, I take it!
To all other demands he invariably replied,—"Can't burn the candle at both ends, my dear sir. The governor charitables for the whole family. He'll give you something if you'll let him head the list and keep it standing."
No, we have no fault to find with Charles Svendt. Time came when he was weighed and not found wanting.
Graeme and he had run across one another occasionally—at the Travellers' Club and elsewhere—but their acquaintance had never ripened to the point of introduction till that night at the Whitefriars' dinner. After that they were on nodding terms, but not much more, until—well, until later.
So, though there was hope in his heart, born of Lady Elspeth's approval and quiet suggestings, John Graeme was still somewhat doubtful as to Margaret Brandt's feelings towards him, and quite at a loss how to arrive at a more exact knowledge of them.
Too precipitate an advance might end in utter rout. And opportunities of approach were all too infrequent for his wishes.
Their chance meetings were rare and exquisite pleasures,—to be looked forward to with an eagerness that held within it the strange possibility of pain through sheer excess of longing;—to be enjoyed like the glory of a fleeting dream;—to be looked back upon with touches of regret at opportunities missed;—to be dwelt upon for days and nights with alternate hope and misgiving, with the rapturous recalling of every tone of the sweet voice, of every word it had uttered, of every gracious gesture, and every most minute and subtle change in the sweetest face and the frankest and most charming eyes in the world.
Their acquaintance had blossomed thus far, when a dire disaster happened and justified all his fears.
He ran gaily up the steps of Lady Elspeth's house one afternoon, brimming with hope that kindly fortune might bring Margaret that way that day, and was hurled into deepest depths of despair by old Hamish as soon as he opened the door.
"Ech, Mr. Graeme!" said the old man, with his grizzled old face tuned to befitting concern. "Her leddyship's awa' to Inverstrife at a moment's notice. She had a tailegram late last night saying the little leddy—the Countess, ye ken—was very bad, and would she go at once. And she and Jannet were off by the first train this morning. They aye send for us, ye ken, when anything by-ordinar's to the fore. It's the little leddy's first, ye understand, and ye'll mind that her own mother died two years ago."
"Well, well! I'm sorry you've had such an upsetting, Hamish. And there's no knowing when Lady Elspeth will return, I suppose?"
"It a' depends on the little leddy, Mr. Graeme. Her leddyship will stay till everything's all right, ye may depend upon that. She told me to give you her kindest regairds and beg you to excuse her not writing. They were all on their heads, so to speak, as ye can understand."
"Yes, of course. Well, we must just hope the little lady will pull through all right. If I don't hear from Lady Elspeth I will call now and again for your latest news."
"Surely, sir. Jannet'll be letting me know, if her leddyship's too busy. Miss Brandt was here about hauf an hour ago," he added, with unmoved face;—to think of any man, even so ancient a man as old Hamish, being able to state a fact so great as that with unmoved face! And there was actually no sign of reminiscent and lingering after-glow perceptible in him!—but Graeme was not at all sure that there was not a veiled twinkle away down in the depths of his little blue-gray eyes.
"Ah! Miss Brandt has been here! She would be surprised too——"
"She was that, sir,—and a bit disappointed, it seemed to me——"
Yes, there was a twinkle in the old fellow's eyes! Oh, he knew, he knew without a doubt. Trust old Hamish for not missing much that was to the fore. He and his old wife, Jannet Gordon, had been in Lady Elspeth's service for over forty years, ever since her leddyship married into the family, and Lady Elspeth trusted them both implicitly and discussed most matters very freely with them. The dilatations of those three shrewd old people, concerning things in general, and the men and women of their acquaintance in particular, would have been rare, rare hearing.
"Well, I'll call again in a day or two, Hamish," and he went away along the gloomy streets, which were all ablaze with soft April sunshine, and yet to him had suddenly become darkened. For he saw at a glance all that this was like to do for him.
PART THE SECOND
The rare delight of his meetings with Margaret was at an end. Bluff Fortune had slammed the door in his face, and White-handed Hope had folded her golden wings and sat moping with melancholy mien.
He wandered into Kensington Gardens, but the daffodils swung their heads despondently, and the gorgeous masses of hyacinths made him think of funeral plumes on horses' heads.
He went on into the Park. She might be driving there, and he might catch glimpse of her. But she was not, and all the rest were less than nothing to him.
He found himself at Hyde Park Corner and back again at Kensington Gate. But the door was still closed in his face, and he longed for the sight of somebody else's as he had never longed before.
The post was of course open to him, but, at this stage at all events, he felt that the written word would be eminently inadequate and unsatisfying.
He wanted, when he approached that mighty question, to look into her eyes and see her answer in their pure depths before it reached her lips,—to watch the fluttering heart-signals in her sweet face and learn from them more than all the words in the world could tell. Letters were, at best, to actual speech but as actual speech would be to all that his heart-quickened eyes would discover if he could but ask her face to face.
And besides—he would have wished to make his footing somewhat surer before putting everything to the test.
But, since matters had gone thus far, it was quite out of the question to let them stop there unresolved. Either the precious cargo must be brought safely into port or the derelict must be sunk and the fairway cleared. The question was—how to proceed?
The unwritten laws of social usage would hardly permit him to carry the Pixley mansion by assault and insist on seeing Miss Brandt. Besides, that might expose her to annoyance, and that he would not upon any consideration.
And so, before he reached his rooms, his mind was groping clumsily after written phrases which should in some sort express that which was in him without saying too much too soon,—which should delicately hint his regrets at this sudden curtailment of their acquaintance, and leave it for her to say whether or no she regarded the matter in the same light.
Lady Elspeth's sudden summons to the north furnished an acceptable text. Margaret was not to know that he knew of her call at Phillimore Gardens. It was surely but a friendly act on his part to inform her of a matter so nearly concerning one who was dear to them both.
It took a considerable time, however, and the expenditure of much thought and ink and paper, before he succeeded in producing a letter in any degree to his liking. And even when it was written many perusals only served to deepen his doubts.
In any case, it was the best he could do under the circumstances, and since he could not see her answer in her eyes or in her face, the words she would send him in reply would surely afford his quickened perceptions some indication of her feeling, though nothing to what her presence would have told him.
So he wrote—
"Dear Miss Brandt,—When I called at Lady Elspeth Gordon's this afternoon, I learned, to my very great regret, in which I dare to hope you may participate, that our dear old friend had been summoned to Inverstrife at almost a moment's notice, by the sudden illness of her niece, the Countess of Assynt.
"I trust her visit may not need to be a very extended one, but Lady Elspeth is such a tower of strength to all who seek her help that she is not likely to return so long as she can be of any possible assistance to her friends.
"For reasons which, perhaps, I need not particularise, her sudden departure is to me a loss beyond its apparent magnitude. The hours I have spent at her house have been among the brightest of my life. You also have enjoyed her friendship. I venture to hope that you also will miss her.
"Should I not have the pleasure of seeing you for some little time, I would beg of you to bear me in your kindly remembrance.—Sincerely yours,
"JOHN C. GRAEME."
Did it say too much? Would she look upon it as an overstepping of the limits their acquaintance had reached?
Did it say enough? Could she possibly overlook the things he would so dearly have liked to say but had left unsaid?
Did it say too little? Could she possibly deem it an unnecessary liberty, and cold at that? He did not think she could by any possibility look at it in that light.
But after it was at last surely lodged in the pillar-box, all these doubts came back upon him with tenfold force, and his sleep that night would have been short-commons for a nightingale.
She would get his letter by the first post in the morning. Would she answer it at once? Or would she wait half a day considering it?
Either course held hopeful possibilities. A prompt answer would surely suggest a concurrence of feeling. An answer delayed would without doubt mean that she was pondering his words and reading between the lines. So he possessed his soul in patience, of a somewhat attenuated texture, and waited in hope.
But the whole day passed, and the night, and the next morning's post still brought him nothing,—nothing but an intimation from a publisher of excellent standing that he would not decline to look over the manuscript of his next book if he was open to an offer. And this important document he tossed on one side as lightly as if it were a begging letter or a tailor's advertisement.
What were any other letters, or all the letters in the world, to him when the one letter he desired was not there?
All that bright April day he waited indoors, in order to get Margaret's letter the moment it arrived. For how should he wander abroad, in gloomy-blazing streets or desolate-teeming parks with that anxiously-expected letter possibly awaiting him at home?
The callous passage of the last post, after knocking cheerfully at every door but his own, left him wondering and desperate.
Could he by any possibility have addressed his letter wrongly? It was not easy to make a mistake in No. 1 Melgrave Square.
Could it have gone astray? The Post Office was abominably careless at times. One was constantly hearing of letters slipping down behind desks and monstrously delivered twenty years after date. What earthly good would that letter be delivered when he was forty-seven and Margaret Brandt somewhere in the neighbourhood of forty? Truly, it was monstrous, it was abominable that such carelessness should be permitted in the public departments!
Could Margaret have taken umbrage at anything he had said? He conned his rough draft with solicitous care. It seemed new and strange and crude to him. He feared at each word to come upon the one that might have offended her. But no word, no phrase, nothing even of all that he had left unsaid sprang up before his horrified eyes to choke him with a sense of inadequacy, or inadvertency, or trespass.
No sleep got he that night for cudgelling his tired brains for reasons why no answer had come from Margaret.
Could she be ill? She was well enough, two days before, to call at Lady Elspeth's house. But, of course, even in a day one may take a chill and be prostrated.
The possibility of that was brought home to him next morning by his landlady's surprised stare and exclamation at sight of his face.
"Law, Mr. John!"—she had been handmaid to his mother for many years and he was still always Mr. John to her,—"Have you got the influenza too? Everyone seems to have it nowadays."
He reassured her on the point. But every friend he met that day credited him with it, and suggested remedies and precautions sufficient to have made an end of any ordinary man.
He was vexed to think his face so clear an index of his feelings, but, truly, his spirits were none of the best and the weather was enervatingly warm.
It was quite inconceivable to him that Margaret Brandt should, of knowledge and intention, drop their pleasant acquaintance in this fashion. He believed he knew her well enough to know that, even if she had any fault to find with his letter, she would still have replied to it, and would have delicately conveyed her feeling in her answer.
Then, either she had never received it, or, for some good reason or other, she was unable to reply.
He went down to Melgrave Square to make sure that No. 1 was still there. Possibly he might come across Margaret in the neighbourhood. If he did he would know at a glance if she had received his letter.
But No. 1 offered him no explanations. It stood as usual, large and prim and precise, the very acme of solid, sober wealth and assertive moral rectitude. He was strongly tempted to call and ask for Miss Brandt, but it was only ten o'clock in the morning, and the house looked so truly an embodiment in stucco of Mrs. Grundy and Jeremiah Pixley, that he forbore and went on his melancholy way.
First, to his rooms again, to see if by chance the letter had come in his absence. Then, as it had not, to Lady Elspeth Gordon's for old Hamish's latest news, which, in a letter from his wife, was satisfactory as far as it went, but pointed to a protracted stay. And then, with stern resolution, up to Baker Street and away by train to Chesham, for a long day's tramp through the Buckingham hills and dales, by Chenies to Chorley Wood and Rickmansworth, so to weary the body that the wearier brain should get some rest that night.
The sweet soft air and sunshine, the leisurely life of the villages, and the cheerful unfoldings of the spring, in wood and field and hedgerow, brought him to a more hopeful frame of mind. Every sparrow twittered hope. The thrushes and young blackbirds fluted it melodiously. It was impossible to remain unhopeful in such goodly company. Something unexpected, accidental, untoward, had prevented Margaret replying to his letter. Time would clear it up and set him wondering at his lapse from fullest faith.
Also—he would risk even further rebuff. He would write again, and this time he would trust no precarious and problematical post-office. He would drop his letter into the Pixley letter-box himself, and so be sure that it got there.
If then no answer,—to the winds with Mrs. Grundy and all her coils and conventions! He would call and see Margaret himself, and learn from her own eyes and face and lips how matters stood, and Mrs. Grundy might dance and scream on the step outside until she grew tired of the exercise.
There was joy and hope in action once more. Patient waiting on slowly-dying Hope is surely the direst moral and mental torture to which poor humanity can be subjected. That is where woman pre-eminently overpasses man. Woman can wait unmurmuringly on dying Hope till the last breath is gone, then silently take up her burden and go on her way—or, if the strain has been too great, fold quiet hands on quiet heart and follow her dead hopes into the living hope beyond. Man must aye be doing—and as often as not, such natural judgment as he possesses being warped and jangled by the strain of waiting, he succeeds only in making matters worse and a more complete fool of himself.
To be writing to Margaret again was to be living in hope once more.
If nothing came of this, he would call at the Pixley house.
If nothing came of that—he grew valiant in his new access of life—he would beard Jeremiah Pixley in his den in Lincoln's Inn, state clearly how matters stood, and request permission to approach his ward.
After all, this is a free country, and all men are equal under the law, though he had his own doubts as to whether he would find himself quite equal to that gleaming pillar of light, Mr. Jeremiah Pixley.
So he wrote—
"DEAR MISS BRANDT,—I wrote to you a few days ago, giving you the information of our dear friend Lady Elspeth's sudden summons to Inverstrife, to attend her niece, the Countess of Assynt.
"I hope you will not consider it presumption on my part to express the fear that my letter has somehow miscarried—probably through some oversight of my own, or carelessness on the part of the postal authorities.
"You will, I know, be glad to hear that Lady Elspeth accomplished her journey in safety and without undue discomfort. But Lady Assynt's condition makes it probable that her stay may be somewhat prolonged.
"I venture to hope that you may regret this as much as I do. All who enjoyed Lady Elspeth's friendship and hospitality cannot but miss her sorely.
"I hope, however, that I may still have the pleasure of meeting you occasionally elsewhere. When one has not the habit of readily making new friendships one clings the more firmly to those already made.—Sincerely yours,
"JOHN C. GRAEME."
That letter he dropped into the Pixley letterbox himself that night, and so was assured of its delivery. But two days passed in waning hope, and the afternoon of the third found him on the doorstep of No. 1 Melgrave Square.
The solemn-faced man-servant eyed him suspiciously as a stranger. He looked, to Graeme, like a superannuated official of the Court of Chancery.
"Miss Brandt is not at home, sir."
"Mrs. Pixley is not at home, sir."
Was he right or wrong, he wondered, in thinking he detected a gleam of satisfied anticipation, of gratified understanding, in the solemn one's otherwise rigid eye—as of one who had been told to expect this and was lugubriously contented that it had duly come to pass?
However, there was nothing more to be done there at the moment. The polite conventions, to say nothing of the law, forbade him the pleasure of hurling the outcast of Chancery into the kennel and forcing his way in. Instead, he hailed a hansom and drove straight to Lincoln's Inn, boldly demanded audience of Mr. Pixley on pressing private business, and presently found himself in the presence.
Mr. Pixley stood on the hearthrug with his back to the fire, and handled his gold pince-nez defensively.
Here also Graeme had an intuition that he was expected, which was somewhat odd, you know, unless his letters had been handed to Mr. Pixley for perusal, which did not seem likely.
Mr. Pixley bowed formally and he responded—the salute before the click of the foils.
Mr. Pixley stood expectant, but by no means inviting of confidences such as his visitor was about to tender him. Rather he seemed fully armed for the defence, especially in the matter of the heavy gold pince-nez, which he held threateningly, after the manner of the headsman of old towards the victim on whom he was about to operate.
"I have taken the liberty of calling, Mr. Pixley," said Graeme,—and Mr. Pixley's manner in subtle fashion conveyed his full recognition of the fact that liberty it undoubtedly was, and that he had no smallest shadow of a right to be there,—"to inquire after Miss Brandt."
"Miss Brandt?" said Mr. Pixley vaguely, as though the name were new and strange to him. Or perhaps it was an endeavour on his part to express the impassable gulf which lay between his visitor and his ward, and the profound amazement he felt at any attempt on his visitor's part to abridge it. He also made a little involuntary preliminary cut at him with the pince-nez, as much as to say, "If this my weapon were of a size commensurate with my wishes and your colossal impudence, your head would lie upon the ground, young man."
"I have had the pleasure of meeting Miss Brandt at Lady Elspeth Gordon's and elsewhere. I think I may claim that we were on terms of friendship. Lady Elspeth has been called from home very suddenly to the bedside of her niece, Lady Assynt, and I have written twice to Miss Brandt and have had no reply. It struck me that she might be ill and I have called to inquire."
This was all lame enough no doubt, and so he felt it, but it was only in the nature of preliminary feinting. They were not yet at grips.
"Ah!" with ponderous deliberation, "you have called to inquire if Miss Brandt is ill. I have pleasure in informing you that she is not."
"I am glad to hear that, at all events. Might I ask if you are aware of any reason why she should not have received my letters—or replied to them?"
"Two questions," said Mr. Pixley, cutting them in slices with his pince-nez, as though they were to be charged up to his visitor at so much per pound. "There is no reason whatever why Miss Brandt should not have received your letters. There may be the best possible reasons why she should not reply to them."
"So far as I have been able to form an opinion of Miss Brandt it is quite unlike her not to have, at all events, acknowledged them."
"Ah! Your opportunities have probably been limited, Mr.—er—"—with a glance at the card—"Graeme, and you may possibly be—from your calling upon me I judge you undoubtedly are—ignorant of the facts of the case," and the gold pince-nez hammered that into the stolid young man's head.
"Perhaps you would be so good as to enlighten me."
"It would perhaps be as well to do so. To be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Graeme, my ward had the very best of reasons for handing your letters to me and not replying to them herself."
"Really! I would esteem it a favour, Mr. Pixley, if you would enlighten me further."
"Certainly!" with an airy wave of the pince-nez. "I intend to do so. The simple fact of my ward's engagement to my son, and that they are looking forward to the celebration of their marriage in something less than three months, will probably suffice to explain Miss Brandt's disinclination to enter into correspondence with a comparative stranger,"—and the pince-nez shredded Graeme's hopes into little pieces and scattered them about the floor.
"Miss Brandt is engaged to your son?" he jerked, feeling not a little foolish, and decidedly downhearted.
"As I have informed you. It is a union to which we have been looking hopefully forward for some time past—a most excellent conjunction of hearts and fortunes. My ward possesses some means, as you are doubtless aware,"—with an insolent thrust of the pince-nez at the would-be suitor's honour,—"and my son is also well provided for in that respect."
"Then—I am afraid my visit is something in the nature of an intrusion." Mr. Pixley bowed his fullest acquiescence in this very proper estimate of his position, and the pince-nez intimated that the way out lay just behind him and that the sooner he took advantage of it the better.
"I can only say, by way of apology," added Graeme, "that I was wholly unaware of what you have just told me. I will wish you good-day, Mr. Pixley."
Mr. Pixley and the pince-nez wafted him towards the door, and the lumpy cobbles of the courtyard outside seemed to him, for the moment, absolutely typical of life.
He went back home numbed and sore at heart. It was hard to believe this of Margaret Brandt.
And yet—he said to himself—it was wholly he who was to blame. He had deceived himself. He had wished to believe what he had so earnestly desired should be. Possibly he had closed his eyes to facts and indications which might have enlightened him if he had been on the look-out for them. Possibly—well, there!—he had played the fool unconsciously, and he was not the first. It only remained for him now to play the man.
He felt sore, and bruised, and run down, and for the moment somewhat at odds with life. He would get away from it all to some remote corner, to rest for a time and recover tone, and then to work. For work, after all, is the mighty healer and tonic, and when it is to one's taste there are few wounds it cannot salve.
PART THE THIRD
Six o'clock next morning found Graeme on the deck of the Ibex as she threaded her way swiftly among the bristling black rocks that guard the coast of Guernsey.
Herm and Jethou lay sleeping in the eye of the sun. Beyond them lay a filmy blue whaleback of an island which he was told was Sark, and it was to Sark he was bound.
And wherefore Sark, when, within reasonable limits, all the wide world lay open to him?
Truly, it might not be easy to say. But this I know,—having so far learned the lesson of life, though missing much else—that at times, perhaps at all times, when we think our choice of ways our very own,—when we stand in doubt at the crossroads of life, and then decide on this path or that, and pride ourselves on the exercise of our high prerogative as free agents,—the result, when we look back, bears in upon our hearts the mighty fact that a higher mind than our own has been quietly at work, shaping our ends and moulding and rounding our lives. We may doubt it at times. We may take all the credit to ourselves for dangers passed and tiny victories won, but in due time the eyes of our understanding are opened—and we know.
Possibly it was the rapt eulogiums of his friend Black—who had spent the previous summer in Sark, and had ever since been seeking words strong enough in which to paint its charms—that forced its name to the front when he stood facing the wide world, that lacked, for him at all events, a Margaret Brandt, and was therefore void and desolate.
"If ever you seek perfect peace, relief from your fellows, and the simple life, try Sark—and see that you live in a cottage!" he remembered Adam Black murmuring softly, as they sat smoking at the Travellers' one night, shortly after that memorable dinner of the Whitefriars'. And then he had heaved a sigh of regret at thought of being where he was when he might have been in Sark.
Graeme knew nothing whatever of Sark save what his friend had let fall at times. "Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark," recalled his short-jacket and broad-collar days, and the last of the quartette had always somehow conjured up in his mind the image of a bleak, inaccessible rock set in a stormy sea, where no one lived if he could possibly find shelter elsewhere,—an Ultima Thule, difficult of access and still more difficult of exit, a weather-bound little spot into which you scrambled precariously by means of boats and ladders, and out of which you might not be able to get for weeks on end.
But Sark was to hold a very different place in his mind henceforth. The name of Calais burnt itself into the heart of Queen Mary by reason of loss. Surely on John Graeme's heart the name of Sark may hope to find itself in living letters, for in Sark he was to find more than he had lost—new grace and charm in life, new hopes, new life itself.
He had gone straight home from Lincoln's Inn, and packed his portmanteau, knowing only that he was going away somewhere out of things, caring little where, so long as it was remote and lonely.
Fellow-man—and especially woman—was distasteful to him at the moment. He craved only Solitude the Soother, and Nature the Healer.
He packed all he thought he might need for a couple of months' stay, and among other things the manuscript he had been at work upon until more pressing matters intervened. He felt, indeed, no slightest inclination towards it, or anything else, at present. But that might come, for Work and he were tried friends.
He wrote briefly to Lady Elspeth telling her how things were with him, and that he was going away for a time. He did not tell her where, for the simple reason that at the moment of writing he did not know himself. Sark came into his mind later.
He told his landlady that he was going away for a change, and she remarked in motherly fashion that she was glad to hear it, and it was high time too. He told her to keep all his letters till he sent for them. He had no importunate correspondents, his next book was as good as placed, and all he desired at the moment was to cut the painter, and drift into some quiet backwater where he could lie up till life should wear a more cheerful face.
And so no single soul knew where he had gone, and he said to himself, somewhat bitterly, and quite untruthfully, that no single soul cared.
He had paced the deck all night. The swift smooth motion of the boat, with a slight slow roll in it, was very soothing; and the first tremulous hints of the dawn, and the wonder of its slow unfolding, and the coming of the sun were things to be remembered.
The cold gaunt aloofness, and weltering loneliness of the Casquets appealed to him strongly. Just the kind of place, he said to himself, for a heart-sick traveller to crawl into and grizzle until he found himself again.
As they turned and swung in straight between the little lighthouse on White Rock and Castle Cornet, the bright early sunshine was bathing all the rising terraces of St. Peter Port in a golden haze. Such a quaint medley of gray weathered walls and mellowed red roofs, from which the thin blue smoke of early fires crept lazily up to mingle with the haze above! Such restful banks of greenery! Such a startling blaze of windows flashing back unconscious greetings to the sun! This too was a sight worth remembering. For a wounded soul he was somewhat surprised at the enjoyment these things afforded him.
A further surprise was the pleasure he found in the reduction of a hearty appetite at an hotel on the front. Come! He was not as hard hit as he had thought! There was life in the young dog yet.
But these encouraging symptoms were doubtless due to the temporary exhilaration of the journey. The workaday bustle of the quays renewed his desire for the solitary places, and he set out to find means of transport to the little whalebacked island out there in the golden shimmer of the sun.
There was no steamer till the following day, he learned, and delay was not to his mind. So presently he came to an arrangement with an elderly party in blue, with a red-weathered face and grizzled hair, to put him and his two portmanteaux across to Sark for the sum of five shillings English.
"To Havver Gosslin," said the aged mariner, with much emphasis, and a canny look which conveyed to Graeme nothing more than a simple and praiseworthy desire on his part to avoid any possibility of mistake.
"To Sark," said Graeme, with equal emphasis.
"Ay, ay!" said the other; and so it came that the new-comer's initial experience of the little island went far towards the confirmation of the vague ideas of his childhood as to its inaccessibility.
The ancient called to a younger man, and they strolled away along the harbour wall to get the baggage.
"Ee see," said the old gentleman, as soon as they had pulled out past Castle Cornet, and had hoisted the masts and two rather dirty sprit sails, and had run out the bowsprit and a new clean jib with a view to putting the best possible face on matters, and were beginning to catch occasional puffs of a soft westerly breeze and to wallow slowly along,—"Ee see, time's o' consekens to me and my son. We got to arn our livin'. An' Havver Gosslin's this side the island an' th' Creux's t'other side, an' th' currents round them points is the very divvle."
"That's all right, as long as you land me in Sark."
"The very divvle," and the grizzled head wagged reminiscently. "I seen 'em go right up to Casquets and haf-way to Jarsey trying to get across to Sark. An' when time's o' consekens an' you got to arn your livin', you don' want to be playin' 'bout Casquets an' Jarsey 'stid of gittin' 'cross to Sark an' done wi' it."
"Not a bit of it. You're quite right. Try some of this,"—as he began fumbling meaningly with a black stump of a pipe.
He filled up, and passed on the pouch to his son, who was lying on the thwarts forward, and he also filled up and passed it back with a nod.
"What's this?" asked Graeme.
"Jetto. Mr. Lee—Sir Austin 'e is now—brother o' Passon Lee o' the Port," with a backward jerk of the head, "'e rents it."
"And the bigger island yonder?"
"'At's Harm. 'T's a Garman man has that—Prince Bloocher, they calls him. Keeps kangyroos there an' orstrichers an' things. Don't let annybody ashore there now 'cept just to Shell Beach, which he can't help."
They struck straight across to the long high-ridged island in front, and Graeme's untutored eyes found no special beauty in it.
There was about it, however, a vague gray aloofness which chimed with his spirit, a sober austerity as of a stricken whale,—a mother-whale surely, for was not her young one there at her nose,—fled here to heal her wound perchance, and desirous only of solitude.
But, as they drew nearer, the vague blue-gray bloom of the whaleback resolved itself into a mantle of velvet green, which ran down every rib and spine until it broke off sharp at varying heights and let the bare bones through; and all below the break was clean naked rock—black, cream-yellow, gray, red, brown,—with everywhere a tawny fringe of seaweed, since the tide was at its lowest. Below the fringe the rocks were scoured almost white, and whiter still at their feet, like a tangled drapery of ragged lace, was the foam of the long slow seas.
And the solid silhouette of the island broke suddenly into bosky valleys soft with trees and bracken, and cliff-ringed bays, with wide-spread arms of tumbled rock whose outer ends were tiny islets and hungry reefs.
"Brecqhou," said the ancient mariner, as they swung past a long green island with beetling cliffs, and yawning caverns, and comet-like rushes of white foam among the chaos of rocks below.
Then they swirled through a tumbling race, where the waters came up writhing and boiling from strife with hidden rocks below,—past the dark chasm between Brecqhou and the mainland of Sark, through which the race roared with the voice of many waters—and so into a quiet haven where hard-worked boats lay resting from their labours.
There was a beach of tumbled rocks and seaweed at the head of the bay, and there the grim cliffs fell back into a steep green gully which suggested possibility of ascent. But instead of running in there, the sails were furled and the boat nosed slowly towards the overhanging side of the cliff, where a broad iron ladder fell precariously into the water with its top projecting out beyond its base, so that to climb it one had to lie on one's back, so to speak.
The ancient one eyed his passenger whimsically as the boat stole up to the rungs, so Graeme permitted himself no more than a careless glance at the forbidding ladder and asked, "How about the baggage?"
"We'll see to et," grinned the ancient, and stood, hands on hips and face twisted into a grim smile, while the stranger laid hold of the rusty iron and started upwards, with no slightest idea where the end of the venture might land him.
With the after-assistance of a neighbour of somewhat more genial construction,—inasmuch as it at all events stood upright, and did not lean over the opposite way of ladders in general,—the top rung landed him on a little platform, whence a rope and some foot-holes in the rock, and finally a zigzag path, invited further ascent still.
The portmanteaux were hauled up by a rope and shouldered by his guardian angels, and they toiled slowly up the steep.
Each step developed new beauties behind and on either side. At the top he would fain have rested to drink it all in, but his guides went stolidly on,—towards drink of a more palpable description, he doubted not; and he remembered that time was of consekens, and tore himself away from that most wonderful view and panted after them.
The zigzag path led round clumps of flaming gorse to a gap in a rough stone wall, and so to a tall granite pillar which crowned the cliff and commemorated a disaster. It was erected, he saw, to the memory of a Mr. Jeremiah Pilcher who had been drowned just below in attempting the passage to Guernsey. He had but one regret at the moment—that it was not instead to the memory of Mr. Jeremiah Pixley.
Down verdant lanes—past thatched cottages, past a windmill, past houses of more substantial mien, with a glimpse down a rolling green valley——
"Hotel?" asked the ancient abruptly, from beneath his load.
"No, I want rooms in some cottage. Can you——"
"John Philip," said the ancient one didactically, and trudged on, and finally dumped his share of the burden at the door of what looked like a house but was a shop, in fact the shop.
He went inside and Graeme followed him. A genial-faced elderly man, with gray hair and long gray beard and gray shirt-sleeves, leaned over the counter, talking in an unknown tongue to a blue-guernseyed fisherman, and a quiet-faced old lady in a black velvet hair-net stood listening.
They all looked up and saluted the ancient one with ejaculations of surprise in the unknown tongue, and Graeme stared hard at the gray-bearded man, while they all discussed him to his face.
"Mr. De Carteret," said the ancient at last, with a jerk of the head towards Gray-Beard. "He tell you where to find rooms."
"Thanks! Do you speak any English, Mr. De Carteret?"
The pleasant old face broke into a smile. "I am En-glish," he said, with a quaint soft intonation, and as one who speaks a foreign tongue, and beamed genially on his young compatriot.
"That's all right then. Do you know you're very like Count Tolstoi?"
"I haf been told so, but I do not know him. What is it you would like, if you please to tell me?"
"I want a sitting-room and a bedroom for a month or so, perhaps more,—not at an hotel. I want to be quiet and all to myself."
"Ah—you don' want an hotel. You want to be quiet," and he nodded understandingly. "But the hotels is quiet joost now—"
"I'd sooner have rooms in a cottage if I can get them."
Count Tolstoi turned to the fisherman to whom he had been speaking, and discussed the matter at length with him in the patois.
Then, to Graeme, "If you please to go with him. His wife has roomss to let. You will be quite comfortable there."
Graeme thanked him, and as soon as he had settled satisfactorily with his boatmen, his new keeper picked up both his bags, and led him along a stony way past the post-office, to a creeper-covered cottage, which turned a cold shoulder to the road and looked coyly into a little courtyard paved with cobble-stones and secluded from the outer world by a granite wall three feet high.
And as they went, the young man asked his silent guide somewhat doubtfully, "And do you speak English?"
"Oh yes. We all speak English," he said, with a quiet smile, "except a few of the older folks, maybe, and they mostly understand it though they're slow to talk."
"And your name?"
"John Carre,"—which he pronounced Caury.
"Now that's very odd," laughed Graeme, and stood to enjoy it. "My name is Corrie too, and John Corrie at that."
"So!" said the other quietly, with a glance from under his brows which might mean surprise or only gentle doubt as to the stranger's veracity. And, so odd was the coincidence, that the newcomer saw no necessity to spoil it by telling him that his forebears had left him also the family name of Graeme.
A large brown dog, smooth of hair and of a fine and thoughtful countenance, got up from the doorstep and gave them courteous greeting, and a small, white, rough-coated terrier hurried out of the kitchen and twisted himself into kinks of delight at sound of their voices. And that decided it before ever Graeme looked at the rooms. For if there was one thing he liked when he wanted to be alone, it was the friendly companionship of a couple of cheerful dogs.
And that is how he came,—without any special intent that way, but through, as one might say, a purely accidental combination of circumstances—to be living in that cottage in the Rue Lucas in the little isle of Sark, and under a name that was indeed his own but not the whole of his own. And herein the future was looking after itself and preparing the way for that which was to be.
The cottage was apparently empty. His guide and namesake looked into the kitchen, and called up a stair which led out of it, but got no answer.
"She will be up at the house," he said, and turned and went off up the garden behind, while the dogs raced on in front to show the way.
Through a cleft in the high green bank topped by a thick hedge of hawthorn, they came out into a garden of less utilitarian aspect. Here were shrubs and flowers, palms and conifers and pale eucalyptus trees, clumps of purple iris and clove pinks, roses just coming to the bud, and beyond, a very charming bungalow, built solidly of gray granite and red tiles, with a wide verandah all round. A pleasant-faced woman in a large black sunbonnet came out of the open front door as they went up the path.
"My wife," murmured Carre, and proceeded quietly to explain matters in an undertone of patois.
"I hope you speak English also, Mrs. Carre," said Graeme.
"Oh yess," with a quick smile. "We are all English here."
"Surely you are Welsh," he said, for he had met just that same cheerful type of face in Wales.
"Noh, I am Sark," she smiled again. "I can gif you a sitting-room and a bet-room"—and they proceeded to business, and then the dogs escorted them back to the cottage, to see the stranger fairly inducted to his new abode, and to let him understand that they rejoiced at his coming and would visit him often.
He thought he would be very comfortable there, but why the sitting-room was not the bedroom he never could understand. For it was only a quarter the size of the other, and its single window looked into a field, and a rough granite wall clothed with tiny rock-weeds hid all view of the road and its infrequent traffic. While the bedroom was a room of size, and its two windows gave on to the covered well and the cobbled forecourt, and offered passers-by, if so inclined, oblique views of its occupant in the act of dressing if he forgot to pull down the blind.
The windows of both rooms were set low in the massive granite walls, and being always wide open, they offered, and indeed invited, easy access to—say, a grave-faced gentlemanly brown dog and a spasmodic rough-coated terrier without a tail, whenever the spirit moved them to incursion, which it invariably did at meal-times and frequently in between.
These two new friends of his—for they were never mere acquaintances, but adopted him into fullest brotherhood at sight—proved no small factors in Graeme's extrication from the depths.
Human companionship, even of the loftiest, most philosophic, most gracious, would, for the time being, have jarred and ruffled his naturally equable spirit. Two only exceptions might have been conceivably possible—some humble, large-souled friend, anxious only to anticipate his slightest wish, desirous only of his company, and—dumb, and so unable to fret him with inane talk; or—Margaret Brandt.
The first he could have endured. The latter—ah, God! How he would have rejoiced in her! The spirit groaned within him at times in agonised longing for her; and the glories of the sweet spring days, in a land where spring is joyous and radiant beyond most, turned gray and cheerless in the shadow of his loss. What Might Have Been stabbed What Was to the heart and let its life-blood run.
But, since neither of these was available, a benignant Providence provided him with friends entirely to his taste. For the great brown hound, Punch, was surely, despite the name men had given him, a nobleman by birth and breeding. Powerful and beautifully made, the sight of his long lithe bounds, as he quartered the cliff-sides in silent chase of fowl and fur, was a thing to rejoice in; so exquisite in its tireless grace, so perfect in its unconscious exhibition of power and restraint. For the brown dog never gave tongue, and he never killed. He chased for the keen enjoyment of the chase, and no man had ever heard him speak.
He was the first dumb dog Graeme had ever come across, and the pathetic yearning in his solemn brown eyes was full of infinite appeal to one who suffered also from an unforgettable loss. He answered to his name with a dignified appreciation of its incongruity, and the tail-less white terrier, more appropriately, to that of Scamp.
They were on the very best of terms, these two friends of his, possibly because of their absolute unlikeness,—Punch, large, solemn, imperturbable, with a beautifully-curved slow-waving tail and no voice; Scamp, a bundle of wriggling nerves moved by electricity, with a sharp excited bark and not even the stump of a tail. When he needed to wag he wagged the whole of his body behind his front legs.
These two were sitting watching him expectantly as Mrs. Carre brought in his dinner that first day, and she instantly ordered them out.
Punch rose at once, cast one look of grave appeal at Graeme, as who would say—"Sorry to leave you, but this is the kind of thing I have to put up with,"—and walked slowly away. Scamp grovelled flat and crawled to the door like a long hairy caterpillar.
"Oh, let them stop," said Graeme. "I like them by me," and the culprits turned hopefully with pricked ears and anxious faces.
"Mais non! They are troublesome beasts. Allez, Ponch! Allez, Scamp! A couche!"—and their heads and ears drooped and they slunk away.
But, presently, there came a rustling at the wide-open window which gave on to the field at the back, and Graeme laughed out—and he had not smiled for days—at sight of two deprecatingly anxious faces looking in upon him,—a solemn brown one with black spots above the eloquent grave eyes, and a roguish white one with pink blemishes on a twisting black nose. And while the large brown face loomed steadily above two powerful front paws, the small white face only appeared at intervals as the nervous little body below flung it up to the sill in a series of spasmodic leaps.
"We would esteem it a very great favour, if you are quite sure it would not inconvenience you," said Punch, as plain as speech.
"Do, do, do, do, do give us leave!" signalled Scamp, with every twist of his quivering nose, and every gleam of his glancing eyes, and every hair on end.
A click of the tongue, a noiseless graceful bound, and Punch was at his side. A wild scrambling rush, a wriggle on the sill, a patter over the window-seat, and Scamp was twisting himself into white figure-eights all over the room, with tremendous energy but not a sound save the soft pad of his tiny dancing feet.
Then, as he ate, the great brown head pillowed itself softly on his knee, and the eloquent brown eyes looked up into his in a way that a stone image could hardly have resisted. The while Scamp, on his hind legs, beat the air frantically with his front paws to attract attention to his needs and danced noiselessly all over the floor.
He gauged their characters with interest. When he gave them morsels turn about, Punch awaited his with gentlemanly patience, and even when purposely passed by in order to see what he would do, obtruded his claims by nothing more than a gentle movement of the head on his friend's knee; while Scamp, in like case, twisted himself into knots of anxiety and came perilously near to utterance.
The difference between them when, through lack of intimate knowledge of their likes and dislikes, they got something not entirely to their taste, was also very typical. Punch would retire quietly into obscurity, and having disposed of the objectionable morsel somehow—either by a strenuous swallow or in some corner—would quietly reappear, lay his head on Graeme's knee again, and work it up to his lap with a series of propitiatory little jerks that never failed of their object. Scamp, on the other hand, would hold it in his mouth for a moment till he had savoured it, then place it meekly on the floor, bow his head to the ground, and grovel flat with deprecatory white-eyed up-glances, and as clearly as dog could say, would murmur,—"Oh, Man, Lord of all that go on four legs, forgive thy humble little servant in that he is unable with enjoyment to eat that thou hast of thy bounty tendered him! The fault is wholly his. Yet, of thy great clemency, punish him not beyond his capacity, for his very small body is merely a bundle of nerves, and they lie so very close to the skin that even a harsh word from thee will set them quivering for an hour." But, at a comforting word, he was up in a flash dancing and sparring away as gaily as ever.
Then, when Mrs. Carre brought in the next course, they both retired discreetly below the tent of the tablecloth. But she, knowing them of old perhaps, found them out at once and cried, "Ah you! I see you there! You are just troublesome beasts!" But, seeing that her guest was in the conspiracy, she permitted them for that once; and in time, seeing that he really desired their company, she allowed them to remain as a matter of course and without any preliminary harrying.
One other acquaintance he made during these dark days,—perhaps one ought to say an acquaintance and a half, if indeed the half in this case was not greater than the whole, a matter which Graeme never fully decided in his own mind,—a small person of grim and gloomy tendencies, whose sombre humours chimed at times with his own,—and that small person's familiar.
His name was Johnnie Vautrin, and, as far as Graeme could make out, he was about eight years old in actual years, but aged beyond belief in black arts which made him a terror to his kind. And his familiar, in the person of an enormous black cat, which came and went, was named Marielihou.
Johnnie, and presumably Marielihou, lived with an ancient dame who was held by some to be their great-grandmother, and by some to be Marielihou herself. This was a moot and much-discussed point among the neighbours. What was beyond dispute was that Johnnie was said to be grievously maltreated by her at times, and to lead her a deuce of a life, and she him. The family came originally from Guernsey and had married into Sark, and, for this and other reasons, was still looked askance at by the neighbours.
Both Johnnie and his ancient relative were popularly—or unpopularly—credited with powers of mischief which secured them immunities and privileges beyond the common and not a little prudently concealed dislike.
Old Mrs. Vautrin could put the evil eye on her neighbours' cows and stop their milk, on their churns and stop their butter, on their kettles and stop their boiling.
Johnnie claimed equal powers, but excelled in forecasts of bad weather and ill luck and evil generally, and, since there was no end to his prognostications, they occasionally came true, and when they did he exulted greatly and let no one forget it.
He had a long, humorously snaky, little face, a deep sepulchral voice, which broke into squeaks in moments of excitement, and curious black eyes with apparently no pupils—little glittering black wells of ill intent, with which he cowed dogs and set small children screaming and grown ones swearing. His little body was as malformed as his twisted little soul, and he generally sat in the hedge taking his pleasure off the passers-by, much to their discomfort.
Johnnie also saw ghosts, or said he did, which came to much the same thing since none could prove to the contrary. He had even slept one night in an outhouse up at the Seigneurie, and had carefully locked the door, and so the little old lady in white, who only appears to those who lock their doors of a night, came to him, and, according to Johnnie, they carried on a long and edifying conversation to their mutual satisfaction.
He had also a cheerful habit of visiting sick folks and telling them he had seen their spirits in the lanes at night, and so they might just as well give up all hopes of getting better. On payment of a small fee, however, he was at times, according to his humour, willing to admit that it might have been somebody else's ghost he had seen, but in either case his visitations tended to cheerfulness in none but himself. He was great on the meanings—dismal ones mostly—of flights of birds and falling stars and fallen twigs. And he had been known to throw a branch of hawthorn into a house which had incurred his displeasure.
The men scoffed at him openly, and occasionally gave him surreptitious pennies. The women and children feared him; and the dogs, to the last one, detested him but gave him wide berth.
Graeme had very soon run across the little misanthrope and, in his own black humour, found him amusing. They rarely met without a trial of wit, or parted without a transfer of coppers from the large pocket to the small. Wherefore Johnnie made a special nest in the hedge opposite the cottage, and waylaid his copper-mine systematically and greatly to his own satisfaction and emolument. But, like the dogs, though on a lower level, he too was not without his effect on Graeme's spirits, and if he did not lift him up he certainly at times helped him out of himself and his gloomy thoughts.
"You're just an unmitigated little humbug, Johnnie," said Graeme, as he leaned over the wall smoking, to the small boy whose acquaintance he had made the previous day, and who had promptly foretold a storm which had not come.
"Unmitigumbug! Guyablle! Qu'es' ce que c'es' que ca?" echoed the small boy, with very wide eyes.
"You, my son. Your black magic's all humbug. It lacks the essential attribute of fulfilment. It doesn't work. Black magic that doesn't work is humbug."
"Black-mack-chick! My Good! You do talk!"
"What about that storm?"
"Ah ouaie! Well, you wait. It come."
"So will Christmas, and the summer after next, if we wait long enough. On the same terms I foretell thunders and lightnings, rain, hail, snow, and fiery vapours, followed by lunar rainbows and waterspouts."
"Go'zamin!" said Johnnie, with a touch of reluctant admiration at such an outflow of eloquence; and then, by way of set-off, "I sec six black crows, 's mawn'n."
"Ah—really? And what do you gather from such a procession as that now?"
"Some un's gwain' to die," in a tone of vast satisfaction.
"Of course, of course—if we wait long enough. It's perhaps you. You'll die yourself sometime, you know."
"Noh, I wun't. No 'n'll ivver see me die. I'll just turn into sun'th'n—a gull maybe," as one floated by on moveless wing, the very poetry of motion; and the fathomless black eyes followed it with pathetic longing.
"Cormorant more likely, I should say."
"Noh, I wun't. I don' like corm'rants. They stink. Mebbe I'll be a hawk,"—as his eye fell on one, like a brown leaf nailed against the blue sky. "Did ee hear White Horse last night?"
"I did hear a horse in the night, Johnnie, but I couldn't swear that he was a white one."
"Didn' git up an' look out?" disappointedly.
"No, I didn't. Why should I get up to look out at a horse? I can see horses any day without getting out of bed in the middle of the night."
"'Twus the White Horse of the Coupee,"—in a weird whisper.—"I heerd him start in Little Sark, and come across Coupee, an' up by Colinette, an' past this house. An' if you'd ha' looked out an' seen him, you'd ha' died."
"Good old White Horse! I'm glad I stopped in bed. Did you see him yourself now?"
"I've rid him! Yes!—an' told him where to go," with a ghoulish nod.
"Quite friendly with ghosts and things, eh?"
"I don' mind 'em. I seen the ole lady up at the big house. Yes, an' talked to her too."
"Clever boy! Put the evil eye on her?"
"Noh, ee cann't."
"Can't? Why, I thought you were a past master in all little matters of that kind."
"Ee cann't put evil eye on a ghost," with infinite scorn.
"Oh, she's a ghost, is she? And what did you talk about?"
"You coul'n't understan'," grunted Johnnie, to whom his meeting with the White Lady was a treasured memory if a somewhat tender subject.
And Marielihou? Ah, Marielihou was a black mystery. Sometimes she was there, and sometimes she wasn't, and if at such times you asked Johnnie where she was, he would reply mysteriously, "Aw, she's busy."
And busy Marielihou was, always and at all times. If Graeme found her in the hedge with Johnnie, she was busy licking her lips with vicious enjoyment as though she had just finished eating something that had screamed as it died. Or she was licking them snarlishly and surreptitiously, and sharpening her claws, as though just about starting out after something to eat—something which he knew would certainly scream as it died. For Marielihou was a mighty hunter, and her long black body could be seen about the cliffs at any time of night or day, creeping and worming along, then, of a sudden, pointing and stiffening, and flashing on to her prey like the black death she was.
Six full-grown rabbits had Marielihou been known to bring home in a single day, to say nothing of all the others that had gone to the satisfaction of her own inappeasable lust for rabbit-flesh and slaughter.
As to the strange tales the neighbours whispered about her, Graeme could make neither head nor tail of them. But when old Tom Hamon put it to him direct, he had to confess that he never had seen old Mother Vautrin and Marielihou together, nor both at the same time.
"B'en!" said old Tom, as if that ended the matter. "An' I tell you, if I had a silver bullet I'd soon try what that Marrlyou's made of."
"And why a silver bullet?" asked Graeme.
"'Cause—Lead bullets an't no good 'gainst the likes o' Marrlyou. Many's the wan I've sent after her, ay, an' through her, and she none the worse. Guyablle!" and old Tom spat viciously.
"Perhaps you missed her," suggested Graeme, not unreasonably as he thought.
"Missed her!" with immense scorn. "I tell ee bullets goes clean through her, in one side an' out t'other, an' she never a bit the worse. I've foun' 'em myself spatted on rock just where she sat."
"Well, why don't you get a silver bullet and try again?"
"Ah! Teks some getting does silver bullets."
"A shill'n would mek a little wan," and Graeme gave him a shilling to try his luck, because Marielihou's unsportsmanlike behaviour did not commend itself to him.
But it took many shillings to obtain anything definite in the way of results, and Graeme had his own humorous suspicions as to the billets some of them found, and gently chaffed old Tom on the subject whenever they met.
"You wait," said Tom, with mysterious nods.
Graeme's sober intention had been to put Margaret Brandt, and the agonising regrets that clung to every thought of her, strenuously out of his mind. But that he found more possible in the intention than in the accomplishment.
The first shock of loss numbs one's mental susceptibilities, of course, much as a blow on the head affects the nervous system. The bands are off the wheels, the machinery is out of order, and the friction seems reduced. It is when the machine tries to work again that the full effects of the jar are felt.
And so he found it now. As mind and body recovered tone in the whole vitalising atmosphere of the wondrous little isle,—the air, the sea, the sense of remoteness, the placid life of the place, the abounding beauties of cliff and crag and cave,—his heart awoke also to the aching sense of its loss.
All outward things—all save Johnny Vautrin, and Marielihou, and old Tom Hamon, and several others—sang abundantly of the peace and fulness and joy of life, but his heart was still so sore from its bruising that at times these outward beauties seemed only to mock him with their brightness.
In the first shock of his downcasting, wounded pride said, "I will show no sign. I will forget her. I will salve the bruise with work. Margaret Brandt is not the only woman in the world. In time some other shall take her place;"—and he tried his hardest to believe it.
But body is one thing and mind another. The body you may compel to any mortal thing, but the mind is of a different order, and strongest will cannot whip it to heel at times. Forbid it thought of thing or person and the forbidden is just that which will persist in obtruding itself to the exclusion of all else.
And so, in spite of him, the dull ache in his heart at every thought of Margaret murmured without ceasing, "There is none like her—none!" And crush and compel it as he might, the truth would out, and out the more the more he tried to crush it.
And so at times, in spite of his surroundings, his spirits dragged in lowest deeps.
Work he could not as yet, for the work of the writer demands absolute concentration and most complete surrender, and all his faculties were centred, in spite of himself, on Margaret Brandt and his own great loss in her.
He rambled all over the island with his dog friends, risked skin and bones in precarious descents into apparently impossible depths, scrambled laboriously among the ragged bastions of the Coupee and Little Sark, explored endless caverns, loitered by day in bosky lanes, and roamed restlessly by night under the brightest stars he had ever seen.
But, wherever he went—down underground in the Boutiques or the Gouliots; or lying on the Eperquerie among the flaming gorse and cloudlike stretches of primroses; or standing on Longue Pointe while the sun sank in unearthly splendours behind Herm and Guernsey; or watching from the windmill the throbbing life-lights all round the wide horizon;—wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, there with him always was the poignant remembrance of Margaret Brandt and his loss in her.
His heart ached so, at thought of the emptiness and desolation of the years that lay before him, that at times his body ached also, and the spirit within him groaned in sympathy.
Life without Margaret! What was it worth?
Though it brought him riches and honours overpassing his hopes—and he doubted now at times if that were possible, lacking the inspiration of Margaret—what was it worth?
Riches and honours, won at the true sword's point of earnest work, were good and worth the winning. But yet, without Margaret, they were as nothing to him. His whole heart cried aloud for Margaret. Without her all the full rich hues of life faded into dull gray ashes.
With Margaret to strive for, he had felt himself capable of mighty things. Without her—!
And that she should throw herself away on a Charles Pixley!—Charles the smiling, the imperturbable, the fount of irrepressible chatter and everlasting inanities! How could such a one as Charles Pixley possibly satisfy her nobler nature? Out of the question! Impossible! But then it is just possible that he was not exactly in the best state of mind for forming an unbiassed opinion on so large a question as that.
Anyway he was out of it, and Margaret Brandt was henceforth nothing to him. If he said it once he said it hundreds of times, as if the simple reiteration of so obvious a truth would make it one whit the truer, when his whole heart was clamouring that Margaret was all the worlds to him and the only thing in the world that he wanted.