E-text prepared by MRK
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
I THE FACE AT THE WINDOW II GOOD SAMARITANS III THE CRY IN THE NIGHT IV MISS MOYAT'S PROMISE V THE GRACIOUSNESS OF THE DUKE VI LADY ANGELA GIVES ME SOME ADVICE VII COLONEL RAY'S RING VIII A WONDERFUL OFFER IX TREACHERY X AN EXPRESSION OF CONFIDENCE XI HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS XII AN ACCIDENT XIII A BRIBE XIV A RELUCTANT APOLOGY XV TWO FAIR CALLERS XVI LADY ANGELA'S ENGAGEMENT XVII MORE TREACHERY XVIII IN WHICH I SPEAK OUT XIX MRS. SMITH-LESSING XX TWO TO ONE XXI LADY ANGELA APPROVES XXII MISS MOYAT MAKES A SCENE XXIII MOSTYN RAY EXPLAINS XXIV LORD BLENAVON'S SURRENDER XXV MY SECRET XXVI "NOBLESSE OBLIGE" XXVII FRIEND OF ENEMY? XXVIII A WOMAN'S TONGUE XXIX THE LINK IN THE CHAIN XXX MOSTYN RAY'S LOVE STORY XXXI MY FATHER'S LETTER XXXII A PAINFUL ENCOUNTER XXXIII THE DUKE'S MESSAGE XXXIV MYSELF AND MY STEPMOTHER XXXV ANGELA'S CONFESSION XXXVI I LOSE MY POST XXXVII LORD CHELSFORD'S DIPLOMACY XXXVIII A TERRIBLE DISCOVERY XXXIX THE TRAITOR XL THE THEORIES OF A NOVELIST
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
Like a clap of thunder, the north wind, rushing seawards, seemed suddenly to threaten the ancient little building with destruction. The window sashes rattled, the beams which supported the roof creaked and groaned, the oil lamps by which alone the place was lit swung perilously in their chains. A row of maps designed for the instruction of the young—the place was a schoolhouse—commenced a devil's dance against the wall. In the street without we heard the crash of a fallen chimneypot. My audience of four rose timorously to its feet, and I, glad of the excuse, folded my notes and stepped from the slightly raised platform on to the floor.
"I am much obliged to you for coming," I said, "but I think that it is quite useless to continue, for I can scarcely make you hear, and I am not at all sure that the place is safe."
I spoke hastily, my one desire being to escape from the scene of my humiliation unaccosted. One of my little audience, however, was of a different mind. Rising quickly from one of the back seats, she barred the way. Her broad comely face was full of mingled contrition and sympathy.
"I am so sorry, Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed. "It does seem a cruel pity, doesn't it?—and such a beautiful lecture! I tried so hard to persuade dad and the others to come, but you know how they all love hearing anything about the war, and—"
"My dear Miss Moyat," I interrupted, "I am only sorry that a mistaken sense of kindness should have brought you here. With one less in the audience I think I should have ventured to suggest that we all went round to hear Colonel Ray. I should like to have gone myself immensely."
Blanche Moyat looked at me doubtfully.
"That's all very well," she declared, "but I think it's jolly mean of the Duke to bring him down here the very night you were giving your lecture."
"I do not suppose he knew anything about that," I answered. "In any case, I can give my lecture again any time, but none of us may ever have another opportunity of hearing Colonel Ray. Allow me—"
I opened the door, and a storm of sleet and spray stung our faces. Old Pegg, who had been there to sell and collect tickets, shouted to us.
"Shut the door quick, master, or it'll be blown to smithereens. It's a real nor'easter, and a bad 'un at that. Why, the missie'll hardly stand. I'll see to the lights and lock up, Master Ducaine. Better be getting hoam while thee can, for the creeks'll run full to-night."
Once out in the village street I was spared the embarrassment of conversation. We had to battle the way step by step. We were drenched with spray and the driving rain. The wind kept us breathless, mocking any attempt at speech. We passed the village hall, brilliantly lit; the shadowy forms of a closely packed crowd of people were dimly visible through the uncurtained windows. I fancied that my companion's clutch upon my arm tightened as we hurried past.
We reached a large grey stone house fronting the street. Miss Moyat laid her hand upon the handle of the door and motioned to me to enter.
I shook my head.
"Not to-night," I shouted. "I am drenched."
She endeavoured to persuade me.
"For a few moments, at any rate," she pleaded. "The others will not be home yet, and I will make you something hot. Father is expecting you to supper."
I shook my head and staggered on. At the corner of the street I looked behind. She was holding on to the door handle, still watching me, her skirts blowing about her in strange confusion. For a moment I had half a mind to turn back. The dead loneliness before me seemed imbued with fresh horrors—the loneliness, my fireless grate and empty larder. Moyat was at least hospitable. There would be a big fire, plenty to eat and drink. Then I remembered the man's coarse hints, his unveiled references to his daughters and his wish to see them settled in life, his superabundance of whisky and his only half-veiled tone of patronage. The man was within his rights. He was the rich man of the neighbourhood, corn dealer, farmer, and horse breeder. I was an unknown and practically destitute stranger, come from Heaven knew where, and staying on—because it took a little less to keep body and soul together here than in the town. But my nerves were all raw that night, and the thought of John Moyat with his hearty voice and slap on the shoulder was unbearable. I set my face homewards.
From the village to my cottage stretched a perfectly straight road, with dykes on either side. No sooner had I passed the last house, and set my foot upon the road, than I saw strange things. The marshland, which on the right reached to the sea, was hung here and there with sheets of mist driven along the ground like clouds before an April tempest. White flakes of spray, salt and luminous, were dashed into my face. The sea, indriven up the creeks, swept the road in many places. The cattle, trembling with fear, had left the marshland, and were coming, lowing, along the high path which bordered the dyke. And all the time an undernote of terror, the thunder of the sea rushing in upon the land, came like a deep monotonous refrain to the roaring of the wind.
Through it all I battled my way, hatless, soaked to the skin, yet finding a certain wild pleasure in the storm. By the time I had reached my little dwelling I was exhausted. My hair and clothes were in wild disorder, my boots were like pulp upon my feet. My remaining strength was expended in closing the door. The fire was out, the place struck cold. I staggered towards the easy chair, but the floor seemed suddenly to heave beneath my feet. I was conscious of the fact that for two days I had had little to eat, and that my larder was empty. My limbs were giving way, a mist was before my eyes, and the roar of the sea seemed to be in my ears, even in my brain. My hands went out like a blind man's, and I suppose broke my fall. There was rest at least in the unconsciousness which came down like a black pall upon my senses.
It could only have been a short time before I opened my eyes. Some one was knocking at the door. Outside I could hear the low panting of a motor-car, the flashing of brilliant lamps threw a gleam of light across the floor of my room. Again there came a sharp rapping upon the door. I raised myself upon my elbow, but I made no attempt at speech. The motor was the Rowchester Daimler omnibus. What did these people want with me? I was horribly afraid of being found in such straits. I lay quite still, and prayed that they might go away.
But my visitor, whoever he was, had apparently no idea of doing anything of the sort. I heard the latch lifted, and the tall bulky form of a man filled the threshold. With him came the wind, playing havoc about my room, sending papers and ornaments flying around in wild confusion. He closed the door quickly with a little imprecation. I heard the scratching of a match, saw it carefully shielded in the hollow of the man's hand. Then it burned clearly, and I knew that I was discovered.
The man was wrapped from head to foot in a huge ulster. He was so tall that his cap almost brushed my ceiling. I raised myself upon my elbow and looked at him, looked for the first time at Mostyn Ray. He had the blackest and the heaviest eyebrows I had ever seen, very piercing eyes, and a finely shaped mouth, firm even to cruelty. I should have known him anywhere from the pictures which were filling the newspapers and magazines. My first impression, I think, was that they had done him but scanty justice.
As for me, there is no doubt but that I was a pitiful object. Of colour I had never very much, and my fainting fit could scarcely have improved matters. My cheeks, I had noticed that morning when shaving, were hollow, and there were black rims under my eyes. With my disordered clothing and hair, I must indeed have presented a strange appearance as I struggled to gain my feet.
He looked at me, as well he might, in amazement.
"I would ask you," he said, "to excuse my unceremonious entrance, but that it seems to have been providential. You have met with an accident, I am afraid. Allow me."
He helped me to stagger to my feet, and pushed me gently into the easy chair. The match burnt out, and he quietly struck another and looked around the room for a candle or lamp. It was a vain search, for I had neither.
"I am afraid," I said, "that I am out of candles—and oil. I got a little overtired walking here, and my foot slipped in the dark. Did I understand that you wished to see me?"
"I did," he answered gravely. "My name is Mostyn Ray—but I think that we had better have some light. I am going to get one of the motor lamps."
"If you could call—in the morning," I began desperately, but he had already opened and closed the door. I looked around my room, and I could have sobbed with mortification. The omnibus was lit inside as well as out, and I knew very well who was there. Already he was talking with the occupants. I saw a girl lean forward and listen to him. Then my worst fears were verified. I saw her descend, and they both stood for a moment by the side of the man who was tugging at one of the huge lamps. I closed my eyes in despair.
Once more the wind swept into my room, the door was quickly opened and closed. A man-servant in his long coat, and cockaded hat tied round his head with a piece of string, set down the lamp upon my table. Behind, the girl and Mostyn Ray were talking.
"The man had better stop," he whispered. "There is the fire to be made."
For the first time I heard her voice, very slow and soft, almost languid, yet very pleasant to listen to.
"No!" she said firmly. "It will look so much like taking him by storm. I can assure you that I am by no means a helpless person."
"And I," he answered, "am a campaigner."
"Get back as quickly as you can, Richards," she directed, "and get the things I told you from Mrs. Brown. Jean must bring you back in the motor."
Once more the door opened and shut. I heard the swish of her skirts as she came over towards me.
"Poor fellow!" she murmured. "I'm afraid that he is very ill."
I opened my eyes and made an attempt to rise. She laid her hand upon my shoulder and smiled,
"Please don't move," she said, "and do forgive us for this intrusion. Colonel Ray wanted to call and apologize about this evening, and I am so glad that he did. We are going to take no end of liberties, but you must remember that we are neighbours, and therefore have privileges."
What could I say in answer to such a speech as this? As a matter of fact speech of any sort was denied me; a great sob had stuck in my throat. They did what was kindest. They left me alone.
I heard them rummaging about in my back room, and soon I heard the chopping of sticks. Presently I heard the crackling of flames, and I knew that a fire had been lit. A dreamy partial unconsciousness destitute of all pain, and not in itself unpleasant, stole over me. I felt my boots cut from my feet. I was gently lifted up. Some of my outer garments were removed. Every now and then I heard their voices, I heard her shocked exclamation as she examined my larder, I heard the words "starvation," "exhaustion," scarcely applying them to myself. Then I heard her call to him softly. She was standing by my bookcase.
"Do you see this?" she murmured. "'Guy Ducaine, Magdalen,' and the college coat of arms. They must belong to him, for that is his name."
I did not hear his answer, but directly afterwards a little exclamation escaped him.
"By Jove, what luck! I have my flask with me, after all. Is there a spoon there, Lady Angela?"
She brought him one directly. He stooped down, and I felt the metal strike my teeth. The brandy seemed to set all my blood flowing once more warmly in my veins. The heat of the fire, too, was delicious.
And then the strangest thing of all happened. I opened my eyes. My chair was drawn sideways to the fire and immediately facing the window. The first thing that I saw was this. Pressed against it, peering into the room, was the white face of a man, an entire stranger to me.
They both hurried to my side. I was sitting up in my chair, pointing, my eyes fixed with surprise. I do not know even now why the incident should so much have alarmed me, but it is a fact that for the moment I was palsied with fear. There had been murder in the man's eyes, loathsome things in his white unkempt face. My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. They gave me more brandy, and then I spoke.
"There was a man—looking in. A man's face there, at the window!"
Ray took up the lamp and strode to the door. When he returned he exchanged a significant glance with Lady Angela.
"There is no one there now, at any rate," he said. "I dare say it was fancy."
"It was not," I answered. "It was a man's face—a horrible face."
"The omnibus is coming back," he said quietly. "The servants shall have a good look round."
"I would not worry about it," Lady Angela said, soothingly. "It is easy to fancy things when one is not well."
So they meant to treat me like a child. I said nothing, but it was a long time before my limbs ceased to shake. The tall servant reappeared with a huge luncheon basket—all manner of delicacies were emptied out upon my table. Lady Angela was making something in a clip, Ray was undoing a gold-foiled bottle. Soon I found myself eating and drinking, and the blood once more was mashing through my veins. I was my own man again, rescued by charity. And of all the women in the world, fate had sent this one to play the Lady Bountiful.
"You are looking better, my young friend," Colonel Ray said presently.
"I feel-quite all right again, thank you," I answered. "I wish I could thank you and Lady Angela."
"You must not attempt anything of the sort," she declared. "My father, by-the-bye, Mr. Ducaine, wished me to express his great regret that he should have interfered in any way with your arrangements for this evening. You know, there are so many stupid people around here who have never understood anything at all about the war, and he was very anxious to get Colonel Ray to talk to them. He had no idea, however, that it was the night fixed for your lecture, and he hopes that you will accept the loan of the village hall from him any night you like, and we should so much like all of us to come."
"His Grace is very kind," I murmured. "I fear, however, that the people are not very much interested in lectures, even about their own neighbourhood."
"I am, at any rate," Lady Angela answered, smiling, "and I think we can promise you an audience."
Colonel Ray, who had been standing at the window, came back to us.
"If I may be permitted to make a suggestion, Lady Angela," he said, "I think it would be well if you returned home now, and I will follow shortly on foot."
"Indeed," I said, "there is no need for you, Colonel Ray, to remain. I am absolutely recovered now, and the old woman who looks after me will be here in the morning."
He seemed scarcely to have heard me. Afterwards, when I knew him better, I understood his apparent unconcern of any suggestion counter to his own. He thought slowly and he spoke seldom, but when he had once spoken the matter, so far as he was concerned, was done with. Lady Angela apparently was used to him, for she rose at once. She did not shake hands, but she nodded to me pleasantly. Colonel Ray handed her into the wagonette, and I heard the quicker throbbing of the engine as it glided off into the darkness.
It was several minutes before he returned. I began to wonder whether he had changed his mind, and returned to Rowchester with Lady Angela. Then the door handle suddenly turned, and he stepped in. His hair was tossed with the wind, his shoes were wet and covered with mud, and he was breathing rather fast, as though he had been running. I looked at him inquiringly. He offered me no explanation. But on his way to the chair, which he presently drew up to the fire, he paused for a full minute by the window, and shading the carriage lamp which he still carried, with his hand, he looked steadily out into the darkness. A thought struck me.
"You have seen him!" I exclaimed.
He set down the lamp upon the table, and deliberately seated himself.
"Seen whom?" he asked, producing a pipe and tobacco.
"The man who looked in—whose face I saw at the window."
He struck a match and lit his pipe.
"I have seen no one," he answered quietly. "The face was probably a fancy of yours. I should recommend you to forget it."
I looked down at his marsh-stained shoes. One foot was wet to the ankle, and a thin strip of green seaweed had wound itself around his trousers. To any other man I should have had more to say. Yet even in those first few hours of our acquaintance I had become, like all the others, to some extent the servant of his will, spoken or unspoken. So I held my peace and looked away into the fire. I felt he had something to say to me, and I waited.
He moved his head slowly towards the bookcase.
"Those books," he asked, "are yours?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Your name then is Guy Ducaine?"
"Did you ever know your father?"
It was a singular question. I looked at him quickly. His face was sphinxlike.
"No. Why do you ask? Did you?"
He ignored me absolutely for several moments. His whole attention seemed fixed upon the curling wreath of blue smoke which hung between us.
"He died, I suppose," he continued, "when you were about twelve years old."
"My uncle," I said, "gave me a holiday and a sovereign to spend. He told me that a great piece of good fortune had happened to me."
Colonel Ray smiled grimly.
"That was like old Stephen Ducaine," he remarked. "He died himself a few years afterwards."
"He left you ten thousand pounds. What have you done with it?"
"Mr. Heathcote, of Heathcote, Sons, and Vyse, was my solicitor."
I remembered that he had been away from England for several years.
"The firm failed," I told him, "for a quarter of a million. Mr. Heathcote shot himself. I am told that there is a probable dividend of sixpence-half-penny in the pound to come some day."
Colonel Ray smoked on in silence. This was evidently news to him.
"Awkward for you," he remarked at last.
I laughed a little bitterly. I knew quite well that he was expecting me to continue, and I did so.
"I sold my things at Magdalen, and paid my debts. I was promised two pupils if I would take a house somewhere on this coast. I took one and got ready for them with my last few pounds. Their father died suddenly—and they did not come. I got rid of the house, at a sacrifice, and came to this cottage."
"You took your degree?"
He blew out more smoke.
"You are young," he said, "a gentleman by birth, and I should imagine a moderate athlete. You have an exceptional degree, and I presume a fair knowledge of the world. Yet you appear to be deliberately settling down here to starve."
"I can assure you," I answered, "that the deliberation is lacking. I have no fear of anything of the sort. I expect to get some pupils in the neighbourhood, and also some literary work. For the moment I am a little hard up, and I thought perhaps that I might make a few shillings by a lecture."
"Of the proceeds of which," he remarked, with a dry little smile, "I appear to have robbed you."
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I hoped for little but a meal or two from it," I answered. "The only loss is to my self-respect. I owe to charity what I might have earned."
He took his pipe from his mouth and looked at me with a thin derisive smile.
"You talk," he said, "like a very young man. If you had knocked about in all corners of the world as I have you would have learnt a greater lesson from a greater book. When a man meets brother man in the wilds, who talks of charity? They divide goods and pass on. Even the savages do this."
"These," I ventured to remark, "are not the wilds."
He sighed and replaced his pipe in his mouth.
"You are young, very young," he remarked, thoughtfully. "You have that beastly hothouse education, big ideas on thin stalks, orchids instead of roses, the stove instead of the sun. The wilds are everywhere—on the Thames Embankment, even in this God-forsaken corner of the world. The wilds are wherever men meet men."
I was silent. Who was I to argue with Ray, whose fame was in every one's mouth—soldier, traveller, and diplomatist? For many years he had been living hand and glove with life and death. There were many who spoke well of him, and many ill—many to whom he was a hero, many to whom his very name was like poison. But he was emphatically not a man to contradict. In my little cottage he seemed like a giant, six-foot-two, broad, and swart with the burning fire of tropical suns. He seemed to fill the place, to dominate me and my paltry surroundings, even as in later years I saw him, the master spirit in a great assembly, eagle-eyed, strenuous, omnipotent. There was something about him which made other men seem like pygmies. There was force in the stern self-repression of his speech, in the curve of his lips, the clear lightning of his eyes.
My silence did not seem altogether to satisfy him. I felt his eyes challenge mine, and I was forced to meet his darkly questioning gaze.
"Come," he said, "I trust that I have said enough. You have buried the thought of that hateful word."
"You have stricken it mortally," I answered, "but I can scarcely promise so speedy a funeral. However, what more I feel," I added, "I will keep to myself."
"It would be better," he answered curtly.
"You have asked me," I said, "many questions. I am emboldened to ask you one. You have spoken of my father."
The look he threw upon me was little short of terrible.
"Ay," he answered, "I have spoken of him. Let me tell you this, young man. If I believed that you were a creature of his breed, if I believed that a drop of his black blood ran in your veins, I would take you by the neck now and throw you into the nearest creek where the water was deep enough to drown."
I rose to my feet, trembling.
"If those are your feelings, sir," I declared, "I have no wish to claim your kindness."
"Sit down, boy," he answered coldly. "I have no fear of you. Nature does not pay us so evil a trick as to send us two such as he in successive generations."
He rose and looked out of the window. The storm had abated but little. The roar of the sea and wind was still like thunder in the air. Black clouds were driven furiously across the sky, torrents of rain and spray beat every now and then upon the window. He turned back and examined the carriage lamp.
"It is an awful night," I said. "I cannot offer you a bed unless you will take mine, but I can bring rugs and a pillow to the fire if you will lie there."
Then for the only time in my life I saw him hesitate. He looked out of my uncurtained window into the night. Very often have I wondered what thought it was that passed then through his brain.
"I thank you," he said; "the walk is nothing, and they will expect me at Rowchester. You have pencil and paper. Write down what I tell you.—Colonel Mostyn Ray, No. 17, Sussex Square. You have that? Good! It is my address. Presently I think you will get tired of your life here. Come then to me. I may be able to show you the way—"
"Out of the conservatory," I interrupted, smiling.
He nodded, and took up the lantern. To my surprise, he did not offer to shake hands. Without another word he passed out into the darkness.
In my dreams that night I fancied that a strange cry came ringing to my ears from the marshes—a long-drawn-out cry of terror, ending in a sob. I was weary, and I turned on my side again and slept.
THE CRY IN THE NIGHT
"You'd be having company last night, sir?" Mrs. Hollings remarked inquisitively. Mrs. Hollings was an elderly widow, who devoted two hours of her morning to cleaning my rooms and preparing my breakfast.
"Some friends did call," I answered, pouring out the coffee.
"Friends! Good Samaritans I should call 'em," Mrs. Hollings declared, "if so be as they left all the things I found here this morning. Why, there's a whole chicken, to say nothing of tongue and biscuits, and butter, and relishes, and savouries, the names of which isn't often heard in this part of the world. There's wine, too, with gold paper round the top, champagne wine, I do believe."
"Is the tide up this morning?" I asked.
"None to speak of," Mrs. Hollings answered, "though the road's been washed dry, and the creeks are brimming. I've scarcely set foot in the village this morning, but they're all a-talking about the soldier gentleman the Duke brought down to the village hall last night. Might you have seen him, sir?"
"Yes, I saw him," I answered.
"A sad shame as it was the night of your lecture, sir," the woman babbled on, "for they were all crazy to hear him. My! the hall was packed."
"Would you mind seeing to my room now, Mrs. Hollings?" I asked. "I am going out early this morning."
Mrs. Hollings ascended my frail little staircase. I finished my breakfast in haste, and catching up my hat escaped out of doors.
I shall never forget the glory of that morning. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun was as hot as though this were indeed a midsummer morning. The whole land, saturated still with the fast receding sea, seemed to gleam and glitter with a strange iridescence. Great pools in unaccustomed places shone like burnished silver, the wet sands were sparkling and brilliant, the creeks had become swollen rivers full of huge masses of emerald seaweed, running far up into the marshland and spreading themselves out over the meadows beyond. There was salt in the very atmosphere. I felt it on my tongue, and my cheeks were rough with it. Overhead the seagulls in great flocks were returning from shelter, screaming as though with joy as they dived down to the sea. It was a wonderful morning.
About two hundred yards past my cottage the road, which from the village ran perfectly straight, took a sharp turn inland, leaving the coast abruptly on account of the greater stretch of marshland beyond. It was towards this bend that I walked, and curiously enough, with every step I took some inexplicable sense of nervous excitement grew stronger and stronger within me. The fresh morning air and the sunlight seemed powerless to dissipate for a moment the haunting terror of last night. It was a real face which I had seen pressed against the window, and where had Ray been when he returned with sand-clogged boots and the telltale seaweed upon his trousers? And later on, had I dreamed it, or had there really been a cry? It came back to me with horrible distinctness. It was a real cry, the cry of a man in terror for his life. I stopped short in the road and wiped my damp forehead. What a fool I was! The night was over. Here in the garish day there was surely nothing to fear? Nevertheless, I, who had started out thirsting only to breathe the fresh salt air, now walked along with stealthy nervous footsteps, looking all the time from left to right, starting at the sight of a dark log on the sands, terrified at a broken buoy which had floated up one of the creeks. Some fear had come over me which I could not shake off. I was afraid of what I might see.
So I walked to the bend of the road. Here, in case the turn might be too sharp for some to see at night, a dozen yards or so of white posts and railings bordered the marshes. I leaned over them for a moment, telling myself that I paused only to admire the strange colours drawn by the sunlight from the sea-soaked wilderness, the deep brown, the strange purple, the faint pink of the distant sands. But it was none of these which my eyes sought with such fierce eagerness. It was none of the artist's fervour which turned my limbs into dead weights, which drew the colour even from my lips, and set my heart beating with fierce quick throbs. Half in the creek and half out, not a dozen yards from the road, was the figure of a man. His head and shoulders were beneath the water, his body and legs and outstretched arms were upon the marsh. And although never before had I looked upon death, I knew very well that I was face to face with it now.
How long it was before I moved I cannot tell. At last, however, I climbed the palings, jumped at its narrowest point a smaller creek, and with slow footsteps approached the dead man. Even when I stood by his side I dared not touch him, I dared not turn him round to see his face. I saw that he was of middle size, fairly well dressed, and as some blown sand had drifted over his boots and ankles I knew that he had been there for some hours. There was blood upon his collar, and the fingers of his right hand were tightly clenched. I told myself that I was a coward, and I set my teeth. I must lift his head from the water, and cover him up with my own coat while I fetched help. But when I stooped down a deadly faintness came over me. My fingers were palsied with horror. I had a sudden irresistible conviction I could not touch him. It was a sheer impossibility. There was something between us more potent than the dread of a dead man—something inimical between us two, the dead and the living. I staggered away and ran reeling to the road, plunging blindly through the creek.
"About two hundred yards further down the road was a small lodge at one of the entrances of Rowchester. It was towards this I turned and ran. The door was closed, and I beat upon it fiercely with clenched fists. The woman who answered it stared at me strangely. I suppose that I was a wild-looking object.
"It's Mr. Ducaine, isn't it?" she exclaimed. "Why, sakes alive! what's wrong, sir?"
"A dead man in the marshes," I faltered.
She was interested enough, but her comely weather-hardened face reflected none of the horror which she must have seen on mine.
"Lordy me! whereabouts, sir?" she inquired.
I pointed with a trembling forefinger. She stood by my side on the threshold of the cottage and shaded her eyes with her hand, for the glare of the sun was dazzling.
"Well, I never did!" she remarked. "But I said to John last night that I pitied them at sea. He's been washed up by the tide, I suppose, and I count there'll be more before the day's out. A year come next September there was six of 'em, gentlefolk, too, who'd been yachting. Eh, but it's a cruel thing is the sea."
"Where is your husband?" I asked.
"Up chopping wood in Fernham Spinney," she answered. "I'd best send one of the children for him. He'll have a cart with him. Will you step inside, sir?"
I shook my head and answered her vaguely. She sent a boy with a message, and brought me out a chair, dusting it carefully with her apron.
"You'd best sit down, sir. You look all struck of a heap, so to speak. Maybe you came upon it sudden."
I was glad enough to sit down, but I answered her at random. She re-entered the cottage and continued some household duties. I sat quite still, with my eyes steadily fixed upon a dark object a little to the left of those white palings. Above my head a starling in a wicker cage was making an insane cackling, on the green patch in front a couple of tame rabbits sat and watched me, pink-eyed, imperturbable. Inside I could hear the slow ticking of an eight-day clock. The woman was humming to herself as she worked. All these things, which my senses took quick note of and retained, seemed to me to belong to another world. I myself was under some sort of spell. My brain was numb with terror, the fire of life had left my veins, so that I sat there in the warm sunshine and shivered until my teeth chattered. Inside, the woman was singing over her work.
And then the spell developed. A nameless but loathsome fascination drew me from my seat, drew me with uneven and reluctant footsteps out of the gate and down the narrow straight road. There was still not a soul in sight. I drew nearer and nearer to the spot. Once more I essayed to move him. It was utterly in vain. Such nerve as I possessed had left me wholly and altogether. A sense of repulsion, nauseating, invincible, made a child of me. I stood up and looked around wildly. It was then for the first time I saw what my right foot had trodden into the sand.
I picked it up, and a little cry, unheard save by the sea-birds which circled about my head, broke from my lips. It was a man's signet ring, thin and worn smooth with age. It was quaintly shaped, and in the centre was set a small jet-black stone. The device was a bird, and underneath the motto—"Vinco!"
My hand closed suddenly upon it, and again I looked searchingly around. There was not a soul in sight. I slipped the ring into my waistcoat pocket and moved back to the white railings. I leaned against them, and, taking a pipe and tobacco from my pocket, began to smoke.
Strangely enough, I had now recovered my nerve. I was able to think and reason calmly. The woman at the lodge had taken it for granted that this man's body had been thrown up by the sea. Was that a possible conclusion? There was a line all down the sands where the tide had reached, a straggling uneven line marked with huge masses of wet seaweeds, fragments of timber, the flotsam and jetsam of the sea. The creek where the man's body was lying was forty yards above this. Yet on such a night who could say where those great breakers, driven in by the wind as well as by their own mighty force, might not have cast their prey? Within a few yards of him was a jagged mass of timber. The cause of those wounds would be obvious enough. I felt the ring in my waistcoat pocket—it was there, safely enough hidden, and I looked toward the lodge. As yet there were no signs of John or the cart.
But behind me, coming from the village, I heard the sound of light and rapid footsteps. I turned my head. It was Blanche Moyat, short-skirted, a stick in her hand, a feather stuck through her Tam-o'-Shanter.
"Good-morning," she cried out heartily; "I've been to call at your cottage."
"Very kind of you," I answered, hesitatingly. Miss Moyat was good-hearted, but a little overpowering—and in certain moods she reminded me of her father.
"Oh, I had an errand," she explained, laughing. "Father said if I saw you I was to say that he has to call on the Duke this afternoon, and, if you liked, he would explain about your lecture last night, and try and get the village hall for you for nothing. The Duke is very good-natured, and if he knows that he spoilt your evening, father thinks he might let you have it for nothing."
"It is very kind of your father," I answered. "I do not think that I shall ever give that lecture again."
"Why not?" she protested. "I am sure I thought it a beautiful lecture, and I'm not keen on churches and ruins myself," she added, with a laugh which somehow grated upon me. "What are you doing here?"
"Watching the dead," I answered grimly.
She looked at me for an explanation. I pointed to the dark object by the side of the creek. She gave a violent start. Then she screamed and caught hold of my arm.
"Mr. Ducaine!" she cried. "What is it?"
"A dead man!" I answered.
Her face was a strange study. There was fear mingled with unwholesome curiosity, the heritage of her natural lack of refinement. She leaned over the palings.
"Oh, how horrible!" she exclaimed. "I don't know whether I want to look or not. I've never seen any one dead."
"I should advise you," I said, "to go away."
It was apparently the last thing she desired to do. Of the various emotions which had possessed her, curiosity was the one which survived.
"You are sure he is dead?" she asked.
"Quite," I answered.
"Was he drowned, then?"
"I think," I replied, "that he has been washed up by the tide. There has probably been a shipwreck."
"Gracious!" she exclaimed. "It is just a sailor, then?"
"I have not looked at his face," I answered, "and I should not advise you to. He has been tossed about and injured. His clothes, though, are not a seaman's."
She passed through a gap in the palings.
"I must look just a little closer," she exclaimed. "Do come with me, Mr. Ducaine. I'm horribly afraid."
"Then don't go near him," I advised. "A dead man is surely not a pleasant spectacle for you. Come away, Miss Moyat."
But she had advanced to within a couple of yards of him. Then she stopped short, and a little exclamation escaped from her lips.
"Why, Mr. Ducaine," she cried out, "this is the very man who stopped me last night outside our house, and asked the way to your cottage."
MISS MOYAT'S PROMISE
We stood looking at one another on the edge of the marsh. In the clear morning sunlight I had no chance of escape or subterfuge. There was terror in my face, and she could see it.
"You—you cannot be sure!" I exclaimed. "It may not be the same man."
"It is the same man," she answered confidently. "He stopped me and asked if I could direct him to your house. It was about half an hour after you had gone. He spoke very softly and almost like a foreigner. I told him exactly where your cottage was. Didn't he come to you?"
"No," I answered. "I have never seen him before in my life."
"Why do you look—so terrified?" she asked. "You are as pale as a ghost."
I clutched hold of the railings. She came over to my side. Up the road I heard in the distance the crunching of heavy wheels. A wagon was passing through the lodge gates. John, the woodman, was walking with unaccustomed briskness by the horses' heads, cracking his whip as he came. I looked into the girl's face by my side.
"Miss Moyat," I said hoarsely, "can't you forget that you saw this man?"
"Why?" she asked bewildered.
"I don't want to be dragged into it," I answered, glancing nervously over my shoulder along the road. "Don't you see that if he is just found here with his head and shoulders in the creek, and nothing is known about him, they will take it that he has been washed up by the sea in the storm last night? But if it is known that he came from the land, that he was seen in the village asking for me—then there will be many things said."
"I don't see as it matters," she answered, puzzled. "He didn't come, and you don't know anything about him. But, of course, if you want me to say nothing—"
She paused. I clutched her arm.
"Miss Moyat," I said, "I have strong reasons for not wishing to be brought into this."
"All right," she said, dropping her voice. "I will do—as you ask."
There was an absurd meaning in her little side-glance, which at another time would have put me on my guard. But just then I was engrossed with my own vague fears. I forgot even to remove my hand from her arm. So we were standing, when a moment later the silence was broken by the sound of a galloping horse coming fast across the marshes. We started aside. Lady Angela reined in a great bay mare a few yards away from us. Her habit was all bespattered with mud. She had evidently ridden across country from one of the private entrances to the Park.
"What is this terrible story, Mr. Ducaine?" she exclaimed. "Is there really a shipwreck? I can see no signs of it."
"No shipwreck that I know of, Lady Angela," I answered. "There is a dead man here—one only. I have heard of nothing else."
Her eyes followed my outstretched hand, and she saw the body half on the sands, half on the marsh. She shivered a little.
"Poor fellow!" she exclaimed. "Is it any one from the village, Mr. Ducaine?"
"It is a stranger, Lady Angela," I answered. "We think that his body must have been washed in from the sea."
She measured the distance from high-water mark with a glance, and shook her head.
"Too far away," she declared.
"There was a wild sea last night," I answered, "and such a tide as I have never seen here before."
"What are you doing with it?" she asked, pointing with her whip.
"John Hefford is bringing a wagon," I answered. "I suppose he had better take it to the police station."
She wheeled her horse round.
"I am glad that it is no worse," she said. "There are reports going about of a terrible shipwreck. I trust that you are feeling better, Mr. Ducaine?"
"I am quite recovered—thanks to your kindness and Colonel Ray's," I answered.
"You will hear from my father during the day," she said. "He is quite anxious to come to your lecture. Good-morning."
"Good-morning, Lady Angela."
She galloped away. Miss Moyat turned towards me eagerly.
"Why, Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed, "I had no idea that you knew Lady Angela."
"Nor do I," I answered shortly. "Our acquaintance is of the slightest."
"What did she mean about the lecture?"
I affected not to hear. John the wagoner had pulled up his team by the side of the palings, and was touching his hat respectfully.
"Another job for the dead 'ouse, sir, my missis tells me."
"There is the body of a dead man here, John," I answered, "washed up by the tide, I suppose. It isn't an uncommon occurrence here, is it?"
"Lor bless you, no, sir," the man answered, stepping over the palings. "I had three of them here in one month last year. If you'll just give me a hand, sir, we'll take him down to the police station."
I set my teeth and advanced towards the dead man. John Hefford proved at once that he was superior to all such trifles as nerves. He lifted the body up and laid it for the first time flat upon the sands.
"My! he's had a nasty smash on the head," John remarked, looking down at him with simple curiosity. "Quite the gent too, I should say. Will you give me a hand, sir, and we'll have him in the wagon."
So I was forced to touch him after all. Nevertheless I kept my eyes as far as possible from the ghastly face with the long hideous wound across it. I saw now, however, in one swift unwilling glance, what manner of man this was. He had thin features, a high forehead, deep-set eyes too close together, a thin iron-grey moustache. Whatever his station in life may have been, he was not of the labouring classes, for his hands were soft and his nails well cared for. We laid him in the bottom of the wagon, and covered him over with a couple of sacks. John cracked the whip and strode along by the side of the horses. Blanche Moyat and I followed behind.
She was unusually silent, and once or twice I caught her glancing curiously at me, as though she had something which it was in her mind to say, but needed encouragement. As we neared my cottage she asked me a question.
"Why don't you want me to say that I saw this man in the village last night, and that he asked for you, Mr. Ducaine? I can't understand what difference it makes. He may have spoken to others besides me, and then it is bound to be known. What harm can it do you?"
"I cannot explain how I feel about it," I answered. "I am not sure that I know myself. Only you must see that if it were known that he set out from the village last night to call upon me, people might say unpleasant things."
She lowered her voice.
"You mean—that they might suspect you of killing him?"
"Why not? Nobody knows much about me here, and it would seem suspicious. It was I who found him, and only a few hundred yards from my cottage. If it were known that he had left the village last night to see me, don't you think that it would occur to any one to wonder if we had met—and quarrelled? There could be no proof, of course, but the mere suggestion is unpleasant enough." We were in the middle of the open road, and the wagon was several yards in front. Nevertheless she drew a little closer to me, and almost whispered in my ear—
"Do you know who he is, what he wanted to see you about?"
"I have no idea," I answered. "I am quite sure that I never saw him before in my life."
"Did you see him last night?" she asked.
"Not to speak to," I answered. "I did catch just a glimpse of him, I believe, in rather a strange way. But that was all."
"What do you mean
"I saw him looking in through my window, but he came no nearer. Lady Angela and Colonel Ray were in the room."
"In your room?"
"Yes. Colonel Ray called to say that he was sorry to have spoilt my lecture."
"And Lady Angela?"
"She came in too?"
The girl's open-mouthed curiosity irritated me.
"I happened to be ill when Colonel Ray came. They were both very kind to me."
"This man, then," she continued, "he looked in and went away?"
"I suppose so," I answered. "I saw no more of him."
She turned towards me breathlessly.
"I don't see how a fall could have killed him, or how he could have wandered off into the marshes just there. The creek isn't nearly deep enough to have drowned him unless he had walked deliberately in and lain down. He was quite sober, too, when he spoke to me. Mr. Ducaine, how did he die? What killed him?"
I shook my head.
"If I could answer you these questions," I said, "I should feel much easier in my own mind. But I cannot. I know no more about it than you do."
We were both silent for a time, but I saw that there was a new look in her face. It was a welcome relief when a groom from Rowchester overtook us and pulled up his horse by our side.
"Are you Mr. Ducaine, sir?" he asked, touching his hat.
"Yes," I answered.
"I have a note for you from his Grace, sir," he said. "I was to take back an answer if I found you at home."
He handed it to me, and I tore it open. It contained only a few lines, in a large sprawling hand-writing.
"ROWCHESTER, Wednesday Morning.
"The Duke of Rowchester presents his compliments to Mr. Ducaine, and would be much obliged if he could make it convenient to call upon him at Rowchester between three and four o'clock this afternoon."
I folded the note up and turned to the groom.
"Will you tell his Grace," I said, "that you found me on the road, and I was unable, therefore, to write my answer, but I will call at the time he mentions?"
The man touched his hat and rode away. Blanche Moyat, who had been standing a few yards off, rejoined me.
"Has the Duke sent for you to go there?" she asked, with obvious curiosity.
"Yes. He has offered to lend me the village hall," I told her. "I expect that is what he wants to see me about."
She tossed her head.
"You didn't tell me so just now when I told you that father had offered to speak about it," she remarked.
"I am afraid," I said, gravely, "my mind was full of more serious matters."
She said no more until we reached the front of the Moyats' house. Then she did not offer me her hand, but she stood quite close to me, and spoke in an unnaturally low tone.
"You wish me, then," she said, "not to mention about that man—his asking the way to your cottage?"
"It seems quite unnecessary," I answered, "and it would only mean that I should be bothered with questions which I could not answer."
"Very well," she said, "Good-bye!"
I shuddered to myself as I followed the wagon down the narrow street towards the police station. A strange reserve had crept into her manner during the latter portion of our walk. There was something in her mind which she shrank from putting into words. Did she believe that I was responsible for this grim tragedy which had so suddenly thrown its shadow over my humdrum little life?
THE GRACIOUSNESS OF THE DUKE
At a quarter-past three that afternoon I was ushered into the presence of the Duke of Rowchester. I had never seen him before, and his personality at once interested me. He was a small man, grey-haired, keen-eyed, clean shaven. He received me in a somewhat bare apartment, which he alluded to as his workroom, and I found him seated before a desk strewn with papers. He rose immediately at my entrance, and I could feel that he was taking more than usual note of my appearance.
"You are Mr. Ducaine," he said, holding out his hand. "I am very glad to see you."
He motioned me to a chair facing the window, a great uncurtained affair, through which the north light came flooding in, whilst he himself sat in the shadows.
"I trust," he said, "that you have quite recovered from your last night's indisposition. My daughter has been telling me about it."
"Quite, thank you," I answered. "Lady Angela and Colonel Ray were very kind to me."
He nodded, and then glanced at the papers on his desk.
"I have been going through several matters connected with the estate, Mr. Ducaine," he said, "and I have come across one which concerns you."
"The proposed lease of the Grange," I remarked.
"Exactly. It seems that you arranged a three years' tenancy with Mr. Hulshaw, my agent, and were then not prepared to carry it out."
"It was scarcely my own fault," I interposed. "I explained the circumstances to Mr. Hulshaw. I was promised two pupils if I took a suitable house in this neighbourhood, but, after all my plans were concluded, their father died unexpectedly, and their new guardian made other arrangements."
"Exactly," the Duke remarked. "The only reason why I have alluded to the matter is that I disapprove of the course adopted by my agent, who, I believe, enforced the payment of a year's rent from you."
"He was within his rights, your Grace," I said.
"He may have been," the Duke admitted, "but I consider his action arbitrary. Not only that, but it was unnecessary, for he has already found another tenant for the place. I have instructed him, therefore, to send you a cheque for the amount you paid him, less the actual cost of preparing the lease."
Now my entire capital at that moment was something under three shillings. A gift of fifty pounds, therefore, which after all was not a gift but only the just return of my own money, was more than opportune—it was Heaven-sent. If I could have given way to my feelings I should have sprung up and wrung the little man's hands. As it was, however, I expect my face betrayed my joy. "Your Grace is exceedingly kind," I told him. "The money will be invaluable to me just now."
The Duke inclined his head.
"I am only sorry," he said, "that Hulshaw should have exacted it. It shows how impossible it is to leave the conduct of one's affairs wholly in the hands of another person. Now there is a further matter, Mr. Ducaine, concerning which I desired to speak to you. I refer to your projected lecture last night."
"I beg that your Grace will not allude to it," I said, hastily. "It is really of very little importance." The Duke had a habit which I began at this time to observe. He appeared to enter into all discussions with his mind wholly made up upon the subject, and any interruptions and interpolations he simply endured with patience, and then continued on his way without the slightest reference to them. He sat during my remark with half-closed eyes, and when I had finished he went on, wholly ignoring it—
"This is a strange little corner of the world," he said, "and the minds of the people here are for the most part like the minds of little children; they need forming. I have heard some remarks concerning the war from one or two of my tenants which have not pleased me. Accordingly, while Colonel Ray was here, I thought it an excellent opportunity to endeavour to instruct them as to the real facts of the case. It was not until after the affair was arranged—not, indeed, until I was actually in the hall—that I heard of our misfortune in selecting the evening which you had already reserved for your own lecture. I trust that you will allow me to offer you the free use of the hall for any other date which you may select. My people here, and I myself, shall esteem it a pleasure to be amongst your audience."
I was quite overwhelmed. I could only murmur my thanks. The Duke went on to speak for a while on general matters, and then skilfully brought the conversation back again to myself and my own affairs. Before I knew where I was I found myself subjected to a close and merciless cross-examination. My youth, my college career, my subsequent adventures seemed all to be subjects of interest to him, and I, although every moment my bewilderment increased, answered him with the obedience of a schoolboy.
It came to an end at last. I found myself confronted with a question which, if I had answered it truthfully, must have disclosed my penniless condition. I rose instead to my feet.
"Your Grace will excuse me," I said, "but I am taking up too much of your time. It is not possible that these small personal details can be of any interest to you."
He waved me back to my chair, which I did not, however, immediately resume. I was not in the least offended. The Duke's manner throughout, and the framing of his questions, had been too tactful to awaken any resentment. But I had no fancy for exposing my ill-luck and friendless state to any one. I was democrat enough to feel that a cross-examination which would have been impertinent in anybody else was becoming a little too personal even from the Duke of Rowchester.
"Sit down, Mr. Ducaine," he said. "I do not blame you for resenting what seems to be curiosity, but you must take my word for it that it is nothing of the sort. I can perhaps explain myself better by asking you still another sort of question. Are you in a position to accept a post of some importance?"
I looked at him in surprise, as well I might.
"Sit down, Mr. Ducaine," he repeated. "I have said enough, I hope, to prove that I am not trifling with you."
"You have managed, at any rate, to surprise me very much, your Grace," I said. "I am eager to receive employment of any sort. May I ask what it was that you had in view?"
He shook his head slowly.
"I cannot tell you to-day," he said. "It is a matter upon which I should have to consult others."
A sudden thought struck me.
"May I ask at whose suggestion you thought of me?" I asked.
"It was Colonel Ray who pointed out certain necessary qualifications which you possess," the Duke answered. "I shall report to him, and to some others, the result of our conversation, and I presume you have no objection to my making such inquiries as I think necessary concerning you?"
"None whatever," I answered.
The Duke rose to his feet. I took up my cap.
"If Colonel Ray is in," I said, "and it is not inconvenient, I should be glad to see him for a moment."
"Colonel Ray left unexpectedly by the first train this morning," the Duke answered, looking at me keenly.
I gave no sign, but my heart sank.
"If it is anything important I can give you his address," he remarked.
"Thank you," I answered, "it is of no consequence."
There was a moment's silence. It seemed to me that the Duke was watching me with peculiar intentness.
"Ray stayed with you late last night," he remarked.
"Colonel Ray was very kind," I answered.
"By-the-bye," he said, "I hear that some stranger lost his life in the storm last night. You found the body, did you not?"
"Yes," I answered. "There was a great deal of wreckage on the shore this morning."
The Duke nodded.
"It was no one belonging to the neighbourhood, I understand?" he asked.
"The man was a stranger to all of us," I answered.
The Duke stood with knitted brows. He seemed on the point of asking me some other question, but apparently he abandoned the idea. He nodded again and rang the bell. I was dismissed.
LADY ANGELA GIVES ME SOME ADVICE
Rowchester was a curious medley of a house, a mixture of farmhouse, mansion, and castle, added to apparently in every generation by men with varying ideas of architecture. The front was low and irregular, and a grey stone terrace ran the entire length, with several rows of steps leading down into the garden. On one of these, as I emerged from the house, Lady Angela was standing talking to a gardener. She turned round at the sound of my footsteps, and came at once towards me.
She was bareheaded, and looked as straight and slim as a dart. I fancied that she could be no more than eighteen, her figure and face were so girlish. The quiet composure of her manner, however, and the subdued yet graceful ease of her movements, were so suggestive of the "great lady," that it was hard to believe that she was indeed little more than a schoolgirl.
"I hope that you are better, Mr. Ducaine," she said.
"Thank you, Lady Angela, I have quite recovered," I answered.
She looked at me critically.
"I can assure you," she said, "that you look a very different person. You gave us quite a fright last night."
"I am ashamed to have been so much trouble," I answered. "Such a thing has never happened to me before."
"You must take more care of yourself," she said gravely. "I hope that my father has expressed himself properly about the lecture."
"His Grace has been very kind," I answered. "He has promised me the free use of the hall at any time."
"Of course," she said. "I hope that you will give your lecture soon. I am looking forward very much to hearing it. This always seems to me such a quaint, fascinating corner of the world that I love to read and hear all that people have to say about it."
"You are very kind," I said; "but if you come I am afraid you will be bored. The notes which I have put together are prepared for the comprehension of the village people."
"So much the better," she declared. "I prefer anything which does not make too great a strain upon the intellect. Besides, it is the very simplicity of this country which makes it so beautiful."
"Yet it is a land," I remarked, "of elusive charms."
"Sometimes, unless they are pointed out," she replied, "by one who has the eye and ear for nature, these are the hardest to appreciate. Only the other evening I was standing upon the cliffs, and I thought what a dreary waste of marshes and sands the place was, and then a single gleam of late sunshine seemed to transform everything. There is hidden colour everywhere if one looks closely enough, and I suppose it is true that the most beautiful things in the world are those which remain just below the surface—a little invisible until one searches for them. By-the-bye, Mr. Ducaine," she added, "if you are on your way home I can show you a path which will save you nearly half the distance."
"You are very kind, Lady Angela," I answered. "Cannot I find it, though, without taking you out of your way?"
"You might," she said, "but I walk down to the cliffs every afternoon. I was just starting when you came. It is quite a regular pilgrimage with me. All day long we hear the sea, but except from the upper windows we have no clear view of it. This is the path."
We crossed the Park together. All the while she talked to me easily and naturally of the country around, the great antiquity of its landmarks, the survival of many ancient customs and almost obsolete forms of speech. At last we came to a small plantation, through which we emerged on to the cliffs. Here, to my surprise, we came upon a quaintly shaped grey stone cottage almost hidden by the trees. I had passed on the sands below many times without seeing it.
"Rather a strange situation for a house, is it not?" Lady Angela remarked. "My grandfather built it for an old pensioner, but I do not think that it has been occupied for some time."
"It is marvellously hidden," I said. "I never had the least idea that there was a house here at all."
We stood now on the edge of the cliff, and she pointed downwards.
"There is a little path there, you see, leading to the sands," she said. "It saves you quite half the distance to your cottage if you do not mind a scramble. You must take care just at first. So many of the stones are loose."
I understood that I was dismissed, and I thanked her and turned away. But she almost immediately called me back.
Her dark eyes were fixed curiously upon my face. She seemed to be weighing something in her mind. I had a fancy that when she spoke again it would be without that deliberation—almost restraint—which seemed to accord a little strangely with the girlishness of her appearance and actual years. She stood on the extreme edge of the cliff, her slim straight figure outlined to angularity against the sky. She remained so long without speech that I had time to note all these things. The sunshine, breaking through the thin-topped pine trees, lay everywhere about us; a little brown feathered bird, scarcely a dozen yards away, sang to us so lustily that the soft feathers around his throat stood out like a ruff. Down below the sea came rushing on to the shingles.
"Mr. Ducaine," she said at last, "did my father make you any offer of employment this afternoon?"
It was a direct, almost a blunt question. I was taken by surprise, but I answered her without hesitation.
"He made me no definite offer," I said. "At the same time he asked me a great many questions, for which he must have had some reason, and he gave me the idea that, subject to the approval of some others, he was thinking of me in connection with some post."
"Colonel Ray was telling me," she said, "how unfortunate you have been with your pupils. I wonder—don't you think perhaps that you might get some others?"
"I have tried," I answered. "So far I have not been lucky. At present, too, I scarcely see how I could expect to get any, for I have nowhere to put them. I had to give up the lease of the Grange, and there is no house round here which I could afford to take."
Some portion of her delicate assurance had certainly deserted her. Her manner was almost nervous.
"If you could possibly find the pupils," she said, hesitatingly, "I should like to ask you a favour. The Manor Farm on the other side of the village is my own, and I should so like it occupied. I would let it to you furnished for ten pounds a year. There is a man and his wife living there now as caretakers. They would be able to look after you."
"You are very kind," I said again, "but I am afraid that I could not take advantage of such an offer."
"I have no claim upon you or your father," I answered. "We are almost strangers, are we not? I might accept and be grateful for employment, but this is charity."
"A very conventional reply, Mr. Ducaine," she remarked, with faint sarcasm. "I gave you credit for a larger view of things."
I found her still inexplicable. She was evidently annoyed, and yet she did not seem to wish me to be. There was a cloud upon her face and a nervousness in her manner which I wholly failed to understand.
"If I were to tell you," she said, raising her eyes suddenly to mine, "that your acceptance of my offer would be a favour—would put me under a real obligation to you?"
"I should still have to remind you," I declared, "that as yet I have no pupils, and it takes time to get them. Further, I have arrived at that position when immediate employment, if it is only as a breaker of stones upon the road, is a necessity to me."
"My father will offer you a post," she said slowly.
"Now you are a real Samaritan, Lady Angela," I declared. "I only hope that it may be so."
Her face reflected none of my enthusiasm.
"You jump at conclusions," she said, coldly. "How do you know that the post will be one which you will be able to fill?"
"If your father offers it to me," I answered, confidently, "he must take the risk of that."
I was surprised at her speech-perhaps a little nettled. I was an "Honours" man, an exceptional linguist, and twenty-five. It did not seem likely to me that there was any post which the Duke might offer which, on the score of ability, at any rate, I should not be competent to fill.
"He will offer it you," she said, looking steadily downwards on to the sands below, "and you will accept it. I am sorry!"
"Sorry!" I exclaimed.
"Very. If I could find you those pupils I would," she continued. "If I could persuade you to lay aside for once the pride which a man seems to think a part of his natural equipment, it would make me very happy. I—"
"Stop," I interrupted. "You must explain this, Lady Angela."
She shook her head.
"Explain is just what I cannot," she said, sadly. "That is what I can never do."
I was completely bewildered now. She was looking seaward, her face steadily averted from mine. As to her attitude towards me, I could make nothing of it. I could not even decide whether it was friendly or inimical. Did she want this post for some one else? If so, surely her influence with her father would be strong enough to secure it. She had spoken to me kindly enough. The faint air of reserve that she seemed to carry with her everywhere, which, coupled with a certain quietness of deportment, appeared to most of the people around to indicate pride, had for these few minutes, at any rate, been lifted. She had come down from the clouds, and spoken to me as any other woman to any other man. And now she had wound up by throwing me into a state of hopeless bewilderment.
"Lady Angela," I said, "I think that you owe me some explanation. If you can assure me that it is in any way against your wishes, if you will give me the shadow of a reason why I should refuse what has not yet been offered to me—well, I will do it. I will do it even if I must starve."
A little forced smile parted her lips. She looked at me kindly.
"I have said a great deal more than I meant to, Mr. Ducaine. I think that it would have been better if I had left most of it unsaid. You must go your own way. I only wanted to guard you against disappointment."
"Disappointment! You think, after all, then—"
"No, that is not what I meant," she interrupted. "I am sure that you will be offered the post, and I am sure that you will not hesitate to accept it. But nevertheless I think that it will bring with it great disappointments. I will tell you this. Already three young men whom I knew very well have held this post, and each in turn has been dismissed. They have lost the confidence of their employers, and though each, I believe, was ambitious and meant to make a career, they have now a black mark against their name."
"You are very mysterious, Lady Angela," I said, doubtfully.
"It is of necessity," she answered. "Perhaps I take rather a morbid view of things, but one of them was the brother of a great friend of mine, and they fear that he has lost his reason. There are peculiar and painful difficulties in connection with this post, Mr. Ducaine, and I think it only fair to give you this warning."
"You are very kind," I said. "I only wish that the whole thing was clearer to me."
She smiled a little sadly.
"At least," she said, "let me give you one word of advice. You will be brought into contact with many people whose integrity will seem to you a positive and certain thing. Nevertheless, treat every one alike. Trust no one. Absolutely no one, Mr. Ducaine. It is your only chance. Now go."
Her gesture of dismissal was almost imperative. I scrambled down the path and gained the sands. When I looked up she was still standing there. The wind blew her skirts around her slim young limbs, and her hair was streaming behind her. Her face seemed like a piece of delicate oval statuary, her steady eyes seemed fixed upon some point where the clouds and sea meet. She took no heed of, she did not even see, my gesture of farewell. I left her there inscrutable, a child with the face of a Sphinx. She had set me a riddle which I could not solve.
COLONEL RAY'S RING
The ring lay on the table between us. Colonel Ray had not yet taken it up. In grim silence he listened to my faltering words. When I finished he smiled upon me as one might upon a child that needed humouring.
"So," he said, slipping the ring upon his finger, "you have saved me from the hangman. What remains? Your reward, eh?"
"It may seem to you," I answered hotly, "a fitting subject for jokes. I am sorry that my sense of humour is not in touch with yours. You are a great traveller, and you have shaken death by the hand before. For me it is a new thing. The man's face haunts me! I cannot sleep or rest for thinking of it—as I have seen it dead, and as I saw it alive pressed against my window that night. Who was he? What did he want with me?"
"How do you know," Ray asked, "that he wanted anything from you?"
"He looked in at my window."
"He might have seen me enter."
Then I told him what I had meant to keep secret.
"He asked for me in the village. He was directed to my cottage."
Ray had been filling his pipe. His fingers paused in their task. He looked at me steadily.
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"The person to whom he spoke in the village told me so."
"Then why did that person not appear at the inquest?"
"Because I asked her not to," I told him. "If she had given evidence the verdict must have been a different one."
"It seems to me," he said quietly, "that you have acted foolishly. If that young woman, whoever she may be, chooses to tell the truth later on you will be in an awkward position."
"If she had told the truth yesterday," I answered, "the position would have been quite awkward enough. Let that go! I want to know who that man was, what he wanted with me."
Colonel Ray shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "have you come from Braster to ask that question?"
"To give you the ring and to ask you that question."
"How do you know that the ring is mine?"
"I saw it on your finger when you were giving me wine."
"Then you believe," he said, "that I killed him?"
"It is no concern of mine," I cried hoarsely. "I do not want to know. I do not want to hear. But I tell you that the man's face haunts me. He asked for me in the village. I feel that he came to Rowchester to see me. And he is dead. Whatever he came to say or to tell me will be buried with him. Who was he? Tell me that?"
Ray smoked on for a few moments reflectively.
"Sit down, sit down!" he said gruffly, "and do abandon that tragical aspect. The creature was not worth all this agitation. He lived like a dog, and he died like one."
"It is true, then?" I murmured.
"If you insist upon knowing," Ray said coolly, "I killed him! There are insects upon which one's foot falls, reptiles which one removes from the earth without a vestige of a qualm, with a certain sense of relief. He was of this order."
"He was a human being," I answered.
"He was none the better for that," Ray declared. "I have known animals of finer disposition."
"You at least," I said fiercely, "were not his judge. You struck him in the dark, too. It was a cowardly action."
Ray turned his head. Then I saw that around his neck was a circular bandage.
"If it interests you to know it," he remarked drily, "I was not the assailant. But for the fact that I was warned it might have been my body which you came across on the sands. I started a second too soon for our friend—and our exchange of compliments sent him to eternity."
"It was in self-defence, then?"
"Scarcely that. He would have run away if he could. I decided otherwise."
"Tell me who he was," I insisted.
Ray shook his head.
"Better for you not to know," he remarked reflectively. "Much better."
My cheeks grew hot with anger.
"Colonel Ray," I said, "this may yet be a serious affair for you. Why you should assume that I am willing to be a silent accessory to your crime I cannot imagine. I insist upon knowing who this man was."
"You have come to London," Ray answered quietly, "to ask me this?"
"I have told you before why I am here," I answered. "I will not be put off any longer. Who was that man, and what did he want with me?"
For a period of time which I could not measure, but which seemed to me of great duration, there was silence between us. Then Ray leaned over towards me.
"I think," he said, "that it is my turn to talk. You have come to me like a hysterical schoolboy, you seem ignorant of the primeval elements of justice. After all it is not wonderful. As yet you have only looked in upon life. You look in, but you do not understand. You have called me a coward. It is only a year or so since His Majesty pinned a little cross upon my coat—for valour. I won that for saving a man's life. Mind you, he was a man. He was a man and a comrade. To save him I rode through a hell of bullets. It ought to have meant death. As a matter of fact it didn't. That was my luck. But you mustn't call me a coward, Ducaine. It is an insult to my decoration."
"Oh, I know that you are brave enough," I answered, "but this man was a poor weak creature, a baby in your hands."
"So are the snakes we stamp beneath our feet," he answered coolly. "Yet we kill them. In Egypt I have been in more than one hot corner where we fought hand to hand. I have killed men more than once. I have watched them galloping up with waving swords, and their fine faces ablaze with the joy of battle, and all the time one's revolver went spit, and the saddles were empty. Yet never once have I sent a brave man to his last account without regret, enemy and fanatic though he was. I am not a bloodthirsty man. When I kill, it is because necessity demands it. As for that creature whom you found in the marshes, well, if there were a dozen such in this room now, I would do my best to rid the earth of them. Take my advice. Dismiss the whole subject from your mind. Go back to Braster and wait. Something may happen within the next twenty-four hours which will be very much to your benefit. Go back to Braster and wait."
"You will tell me nothing, then?" I asked. "It is treating me like a child. I am not a sentimentalist. If the man deserved death the matter is between you and your conscience. But he came to Rowchester to see me. I want to know why."
"Go back to Rowchester and wait," Ray said. "I shall tell you nothing. Depend upon it that his business with you, if he had any, was evil business. He and his whole brood left their mark for evil wherever they crawled."
"His name?" I asked.
"Were there no papers upon him?" Ray demanded.
"So much the better," Ray declared grimly. "Now, my young friend, I have given you all the time I can spare. Beyond what I have said I shall say nothing. If you had known me better—you would not be here still."
So I left him. His words gave me no loophole of hope. His silence was the silence of a strong man, and I had no weapons with which to assail it. I had wasted the money which I could ill afford on this journey to London. Certainly Ray's advice was good. The sooner I was back in Braster the better.
From the station I had walked straight to Ray's house, and from Ray's house I returned, without any deviation, direct to the great terminus. For a man with less than fifty pounds in the world London is scarcely a hospitable city. I caught a slow train, and after four hours of jolting, cold, and the usual third-class miseries, alighted at Rowchester Junction. Already I had started on the three mile tramp home, my coat collar turned up as some slight protection against the drizzling rain, when a two-wheeled trap overtook me, and Mr. Moyat shouted out a gruff greeting. He raised the water-proof apron, and I clambered in by his side.
"Been to Sunbridge?" he inquired cheerfully.
"I have been to London," I answered.
"You haven't been long about it," he remarked. "I saw you on the eight-twenty, didn't I?"
"My business was soon over," I said.
"I've been to Sunbridge," he told me. "Went over with his Grace. My girl was talking about you the other night, Mr. Ducaine."
"Indeed?" I answered.
"Seemed to think," he continued, "that things had been growing a bit rough for you, losing those pupils after you'd been at the expense of taking the Grange, and all that, you know."
"It was rather bad luck," I admitted quietly.
"I've been wondering," he continued, with some diffidence, "whether you'd care for a bit of work in my office, just to carry you along till things looked up. Blanche, she was set upon it that I should ask you anyway. Of course, you being a college young gentleman might not care about it, but there's times when any sort of a job is better than none, eh?"
"It is very kind of you, Mr. Moyat," I answered, "and very kind of Miss Blanche to have thought of it. A week ago I shouldn't have hesitated. But within the last few days I have had a sort of offer—I don't know whether it will come to anything, but it may. Might I leave it open for the present?"
I think that Mr. Moyat was a little disappointed. He flicked the cob with the whip, and looked straight ahead into the driving mist.
"Just as you say," he declared. "I ain't particular in want of any one, but I'm getting to find my own bookkeeping a bit hard, especially now that my eyes ain't what they were. Of course it would only be a thirty bob a week job, but I suppose you'd live on that all right, unless you were thinking of getting married, eh?"
I laughed derisively.
"Married, Mr. Moyat!" I exclaimed. "Why, I'm next door to a pauper."
"There's such a thing," he remarked thoughtfully, "if one's a steady sort of chap, and means work, as picking up a girl with a bit of brass now and then."
"I can assure you, Mr. Moyat," I said as coolly as possible, "that anything of that sort is out of the question so far as I am concerned. I should never dream of even thinking of getting married till I had a home of my own and an income."
He seemed about to say something, but checked himself. We drove on in silence till we came to a dark pile of buildings standing a little way back from the road. He moved his head towards it.
"They tell me Braster Grange is took after all," he remarked. "Mr. Hulshaw told me so this morning."
I was very little interested, but was prepared to welcome any change in the conversation.
"Do you know who is coming there?" I asked.
"An American lady, I believe, name of Lessing. I don't know what strangers want coming to such a place, I'm sure."
I glanced involuntarily over my shoulder. Braster Grange was a long grim pile of buildings, which had been unoccupied for many years. Between it and the sea was nothing but empty marshland. It was one of the bleakest spots along the coast—to the casual observer nothing but an arid waste of sands in the summer, a wilderness of desolation in the winter. Only those who have dwelt in those parts are able to feel the fascination of that great empty land, a fascination potent enough, but of slow growth. Mr. Moyat's remark was justified.
We drove into his stable yard and clambered down.
"You'll come in and have a bit of supper," Mr. Moyat insisted.
I hesitated. I felt that it would be wiser to refuse, but I was cold and wet, and the thought of my fireless room depressed me. So I was ushered into the long low dining-room, with its old hunting prints and black oak furniture, and, best of all, with its huge log fire. Mrs. Moyat greeted me with her usual negative courtesy. I do not think that I was a favourite of hers, but whatever her welcome lacked in impressiveness Blanche's made up for. She kept looking at me as though anxious that I should remember our common secret. More than once I was almost sorry that I had not let her speak.
"You've had swell callers again," she remarked, as we sat side by side at supper-time. "A carriage from Rowchester was outside your door when I passed."
"Ah, he's a good sort is the Duke," Mr. Moyat declared appreciatively. "A clever chap, too. He's A1 in politics, and a first-class business man, chairman of the great Southern Railway Company, and on the board of several other City companies."
"I can't see what the gentry want to meddle with such things at all for," Mrs. Moyat said. "There's some as says as the Duke's lost more than he can afford by speculations."
"The Duke's a shrewd man," Mr. Moyat declared. "It's easy to talk."
"If he hasn't lost money," Mrs. Moyat demanded, "why is Rowchester Castle let to that American millionaire? Why doesn't he live there himself?"
"Prefers the East Coast," Mr. Moyat declared cheerfully. "More bracing, and suits his constitution better. I've heard him say so himself."
"That is all very well," Mrs. Moyat said, "but I can't see that Rowchester is a fit country house for a nobleman. What do you think, Mr. Ducaine?"
I was more interested in the discussion than anxious to be drawn into it, so I returned an evasive reply. Mrs. Moyat nodded sympathetically.
"Of course," she said, "you haven't seen the house except from the road, but I've been over it many a time when Mrs. Felton was housekeeper and the Duke didn't come down so often, and I say that it's a poor place for a Duke."
"Well, well, mother, we won't quarrel about it," Mr. Moyat declared, rising from the table. "I must just have a look at the mare. Do you look after Mr. Ducaine, Blanche."
To my annoyance the retreat of Mr. and Mrs. Moyat was evidently planned, and accelerated by a frown from their daughter. Blanche and I were left alone—whereupon I, too, rose to my feet."
"I must be going," I said, looking at the clock.
Blanche only laughed, and bade me sit down by her side.
"I'm so glad dad brought you in to-night," she said. "Did he say anything to you?"
"Never mind," she answered archly. "Did he say anything at all?"
"He remarked once or twice that it was a wet night," I said.
"Stupid!" she exclaimed. "You know what I mean."
"He did make me a very kind offer," I admitted.
She looked at me eagerly.
"I told him that I am expecting an offer of work of some sort from the Duke. Of course it may not come. In any case, it was very kind of Mr. Moyat."
She drew a little closer to me.
"It was my idea," she whispered. I put it into his head."
"Then it was very kind of you too," I answered. She was apparently disappointed. We sat for several moments in silence. Then she looked around with an air of mystery, and whispered still more softly into my ear—
"I haven't said a word about that—to anybody."
"Thank you very much," I answered. "I was quite sure that you wouldn't, as you had promised."
Again there was silence. She looked at me with some return of that half fearsome curiosity which had first come into her eyes when I made my request.
"Wasn't the inquest horrid?" she said. "Father says they were five hours deciding—and there's old Joe Hassell; even now he won't believe that—that—he came from the sea."
"It isn't a pleasant subject," I said quietly. "Let us talk of something else."
She was swinging a very much beaded slipper backwards and forwards, and gazing at it thoughtfully.
"I don't know," she said. "I can't help thinking of it sometimes. I suppose it is terribly wicked to keep anything back like that, isn't it?"
"If you feel that," I answered, "you had better go and tell your father everything."
She looked at me quickly.
"Now you're cross," she exclaimed. "I'm sure I don't know why."
"I am not cross," I said, "but I do not wish you to feel unhappy about it."
"I don't mind that," she answered, lifting her eyes to mine, "if it is better for you."
The door opened and Mr. Moyat appeared. Blanche was obviously annoyed, I was correspondingly relieved. I rose at once, and took my leave.
"Blanche got you to change your mind?" he said, looking at me closely.
"Miss Moyat hasn't tried," I answered, shaking him by the hand. "We were talking about something else."
Blanche pushed past her father and came to let me out. We stood for a moment at the open door. She pointed down the street.
"It was just there he stopped me," she said in a low tone. "He was very pale, and he had such a slow, strange voice, just like a foreigner. It was in the shadow of the market-hall there. I wish I'd never seen him."
A note of real fear seemed to have crept into her voice. Her eyes were straining through the darkness. I forced a laugh as I lit my cigarette.
"You mustn't get fanciful," I declared. "Men die every day, you know, and I fancy that this one was on his last legs. Good-night."
Her lips parted as though in an answering greeting, but it was inaudible. As I looked round at the top of the street I saw her still standing there in the little flood of yellow light, gazing across towards the old market-hall.
A WONDERFUL OFFER
On my little table lay the letter I expected, large, square, and white. I tore it open with trembling fingers. The handwriting was firm and yet delicate. I knew at once whose it was.