THE NEW TENANT
BY E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
AUTHOR OF "THE YELLOW HOUSE," "TO WIN THE LOVE HE SOUGHT," "A DAUGHTER OF ASTREA," ETC.
DONALD W. NEWTON 156 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY C. H. DOSCHER & CO.
THE TROW PRESS, NEW YORK
I. FALCON'S NEST
II. THE MURDER NEAR THE FALCON'S NEST
III. MR. BERNARD BROWN
IV. AN EVIL END TO AN EVIL LIFE
V. THE INNER ROOM AT THE FALCON'S NEST
VI. A TERRIBLE ENEMY
VII. HELEN THURWELL'S SUSPICIONS
VIII. DID YOU KILL SIR GEOFFREY KYNASTON?
IX. MR. BROWN DINES AT THE COURT
X. THE TRAGEDY OF RACHEL KYNASTON
XI. LEVY & SON, PRIVATE AGENTS
XII. A JEWEL OF A SON
XIII. A STRANGE MEETING
XIV. HELEN THURWELL ASKS A DIRECT QUESTION
XV. A LITERARY CELEBRITY
XVI. A SNUB FOR A BARONET
XVII. BERNARD MADDISON AND HELEN THURWELL
XVIII. A CHEQUE FOR L1,000
XIX. AN UNPLEASANT DISCOVERY FOR BERNARD BROWN
XX. GOD! THAT I MAY DIE!
XXI. SIR ALLAN BEAUMERVILLE HAS A CALLER
XXII. "GOD FORBID IT!"
XXIV. A WOMAN'S LOVE
XXV. MR. LEVY, JUNIOR, GOES ON THE CONTINENT
XXVI. HELEN DECIDES TO GO HOME
XXVII. MR. THURWELL MAKES SOME INQUIRIES
XXVIII. SIR ALLAN BEAUMERVILLE VISITS THE COURT
XXIX. THE SCENE CHANGES
XXX. BENJAMIN LEVY RUNS HIS QUARRY TO EARTH
XXXI. BENJAMIN LEVY WRITES HOME
XXXII. A STRANGE TRIO OF PASSENGERS
XXXIII. VISITORS FOR MR. BERNARD MADDISON
XXXV. COMMITTED FOR TRIAL
XXXVI. MR. LEVY PROMISES TO DO HIS BEST
XXXVII. BERNARD A PRISONER
XXXVIII. "THERE IS MY HAND. DARE YOU TAKE IT?"
XXXIX. MR. BENJAMIN LEVY IS BUSY
XL. A STRANGE BIRTHDAY PARTY
XLII. AT LAST
THE NEW TENANT
Thurwell Court, by Thurwell-on-the-Sea, lay bathed in the quiet freshness of an early morning. The dewdrops were still sparkling upon the terraced lawns like little globules of flashing silver, and the tumult of noisy songsters from the thick shrubberies alone broke the sweet silence. The peacocks strutting about the grey stone balcony and perched upon the worn balustrade were in deshabille, not being accustomed to display their splendors to an empty paradise, and the few fat blackbirds who were hopping about on the lawn did so in a desultory manner, as though they were only half awake and had turned out under protest. Stillness reigned everywhere, but it was the sweet hush of slowly awakening day rather than the drowsy, languorous quiet of exhausted afternoon. With one's eyes shut one could tell that the pulse of day was only just beginning to beat. The pure atmosphere was buoyant with the vigorous promise of morning, and gently laden with the mingled perfumes of slowly opening flowers. There was life in the breathless air.
The sunlight was everywhere. In the distance it lay upon the dark hillside, played upon the deep yellow gorse and purple heather of the moorland, and, further away still, flashed upon a long silver streak of the German Ocean. In the old-fashioned gardens of the court it shone upon luscious peaches hanging on the time-mellowed red-brick walls; lit up the face and gleamed upon the hands of the stable clock, and warmed the ancient heart of the stooping, grey-haired old gardener's help who, with blinking eyes and hands tucked in his trousers pockets, was smoking a matutinal pipe, seated on the wheelbarrow outside the tool shed.
Around the mansion itself it was very busy, casting a thousand sunbeams upon its long line of oriel windows, and many quaint shadows of its begabled roof upon the lawns and bright flower-beds below. On one of the terraces a breakfast-table was laid for two, and here its splendour was absolutely dazzling. It gleamed upon the sparkling silver, and the snow-white tablecloth; shone with a delicate softness upon the freshly-gathered fruit and brilliant flowers, and seemed to hover with a gentle burnished light upon the ruddy golden hair of a girl who sat there waiting, with her arm resting lightly upon the stone balustrade, and her eyes straying over the quaint well-kept gardens to the open moorland and dark patches of wooded country beyond.
"Good morning, Helen! First, as usual."
She turned round with a somewhat languid greeting. A tall, well-made man, a little past middle-age, in gaiters and light tweed coat, had stepped out on to the balcony from one of the open windows. In his right hand he was swinging carelessly backwards and forwards by a long strap a well-worn letter-bag.
"Is breakfast ready?" he inquired.
"Waiting for you, father," she answered, touching a small handbell by her side. "Try one of those peaches. Burdett says they are the finest he ever raised."
He stretched out his hand for one, and sinking into a low basket chair, commenced lazily to peel it, with his eyes wandering over the sunny landscape. A footman brought out the tea equipage and some silver-covered dishes, and, after silently arranging them upon the table, withdrew.
"What an exquisite morning!" Mr. Thurwell remarked, looking up at the blue cloudless sky, and pulling his cap a little closer over his eyes to protect them from the sun. "We might be in Italy again."
"Indeed we might," she answered. "I am going to imagine that we are, and make my breakfast of peaches and cream and chocolate! Shall I give you some?"
He shook his head, with a little grimace.
"No, thanks. I'm Philistine enough to prefer devilled kidneys and tea. I wonder if there is anything in the letters."
He drew a key from his waistcoat pocket, and, unlocking the bag, shook its contents upon the tablecloth. His daughter looked at the pile with a faint show of interest. There were one or two invitations, which he tossed over to her, a few business letters, which he put on one side for more leisurely perusal later on, and a little packet from his agent which he opened at once, and the contents of which brought a slight frown into his handsome face.
Helen Thurwell glanced through her share without finding anything interesting. Tennis parties, archery meetings, a bazaar fete; absolutely nothing fresh. She was so tired of all that sort of thing—tired of eternally meeting the same little set of people, and joining in the same round of so-called amusements. There was nothing in Northshire society which attracted her. It was all very stupid, and she was very much bored.
"Some news here that will interest you, Helen," her father remarked suddenly. "Who do you think is coming home?"
She shook her head. She was not in the least curious.
"I don't remember any one going away lately," she remarked. "How warm it is!"
"Sir Geoffrey Kynaston is coming back."
After all, she was a little interested. She looked away from the sunny gardens and into her father's face.
"It is a fact!" he declared. "Douglas says that he will be here to-day or to-morrow. Let me see, it must be nearly fifteen years since he was in England. Time he settled down, if he means to at all."
"Was he very wild, then?" she asked.
The squire nodded.
"Rather!" he answered dryly. "I dare say people will have forgotten all about it by now, though. Forty thousand a year covers a multitude of sins, especially in a tenth baronet!"
She asked no more questions, but leaned back in her chair, and looked thoughtfully across the open country towards the grey turrets of Kynaston Towers, from which a flag was flying. Mr. Thurwell re-read his agent's letter with a slight frown upon his forehead.
"I don't know what to do here," he remarked.
"What is it?" she asked absently. She was watching the flag slowly unfurling itself in the breeze, and fluttering languidly above the tree-tops. It was odd to think that a master was coming to rule there.
"It's about Falcon's Nest. I wish I'd never thought of letting it!"
"Why? It would be a great deal better occupied, surely!"
"If I could let it to a decent tenant, of course it would. But, you know that fellow Chapman, of Mallory? He wants it!"
She looked up at him quickly.
"You surely would not let it to a man like that?"
"Certainly not. But, on the other hand, I don't want to offend him. If I were to decide to stand for the county at the next election, he would be my most useful man in Mallory, or my worst enemy. He's just the sort of fellow to take offence—quickly, too."
"Can't you tell him it's let?"
"Not unless I do let it to some one. Of course not!"
"But are there no other applications?"
"Yes, there is one other," he answered; "but the most awkward part of it is that it's from a complete stranger. Fellow who calls himself 'Brown.'"
"Let me see the letter," she said.
He passed it over the table to her. It was written on plain notepaper, in a peculiar, cramped handwriting.
"London, May 30.
"DEAR SIR,—I understand, from an advertisement in this week's Field, that you are willing to let 'Falcon's Nest,' situated on your estate. I shall be happy to take it at the rent you quote, if not already disposed of. My solicitors are Messrs. Cuthbert, of Lincoln's Inn; and my bankers, Gregsons. I may add that I am a bachelor, living alone. The favor of your immediate reply will much oblige,
She folded the letter up, and returned it to her father without remark.
"You see," Mr. Thurwell said, "my only chance of escaping from Chapman, without offending him, is to say that it is already let, and to accept this fellow's offer straight off. But it's an awful risk. How do I know that Brown isn't a retired tallow-chandler or something of that sort?"
"Why not telegraph to his solicitors?" she suggested; "they would know who he was, I suppose."
"That's not a bad idea!" he declared. "Morton shall ride over to Mallory at once. I'm glad you thought of it, Helen."
Having come to this decision, Mr. Thurwell turned round and made an excellent breakfast, after which he and his daughter spent the day very much in the same manner as any other English country gentleman and young lady are in the habit of doing. He made a pretense of writing some letters and arranging some business affairs with his agent in the library for an hour, and, later on in the morning, he drove over to Mallory, and took his seat on the magistrates' bench during the hearing of a poaching case. After lunch, he rode to an outlying farm to inspect a new system of drainage, and when he returned, about an hour before dinner-time, he considered that he had done a good day's work.
Helen spent the early part of the morning in the garden, and arranging freshly cut flowers about the house. Then she practised for an hour, solely out of a sense of duty, for she was no musician. Directly the time was up, she closed the piano with a sigh of relief, and spent the rest of the time before two o'clock reading a rather stupid novel. After luncheon she made a call several miles off, driving herself in a light-brown cart, and played several sets of tennis, having for her partner a very mild and brainless young curate. At dinner-time she and her father met again, and when he entered the room he had two slips of orange-colored paper in his hand.
"Well, what news?" she inquired.
He handed the telegrams to her without a word, and she glanced them through. The first was from the bankers.
"To Guy Davenant Thurwell, Esq., Thurwell Court, Northshire.
"We consider Mr. Brown a desirable tenant for you from a pecuniary point of view. We know nothing of his family."
The other one was from his lawyers.
"To Guy D. Thurwell, Esq., Thurwell Court, Northshire.
"Mr. Brown is a gentleman of means, and quite in a position to rent 'Falcon's Nest.' We are not at liberty to say anything as to his antecedents or family."
"What am I to do?" asked Mr. Thurwell, undecidedly. "I don't like the end of this last telegram. A solicitor ought to be able to say a little more about a client than that."
Helen considered for a moment. She was so little interested in the matter that she found it difficult to make up her mind either way. Afterwards she scarcely dared think of that moment's indecision.
"Perhaps so," she said. "All the same, I detest Mr. Chapman. I should vote for Mr. Brown."
"Mr. Brown it shall be, then!" he answered. "Douglas shall write him to-morrow."
A fortnight later Mr. Bernard Brown took up his quarters at Falcon's Nest.
THE MURDER NEAR THE FALCON'S NEST
"I call it perfectly dreadful of those men!" Helen Thurwell exclaimed suddenly. "They're more than an hour late, and I'm desperately hungry!"
"It is rank ingratitude!" Rachel Kynaston sighed. "I positively cannot sit still and look at that luncheon any longer. Groves, give me a biscuit."
They were both seated on low folding-chairs out on the open moorland, only a few yards away from the edge of the rugged line of cliffs against which, many hundreds of feet below, the sea was breaking with a low monotonous murmur. Close behind them, on a level stretch of springy turf, a roughly improvised table, covered with a cloth of dazzling whiteness, was laden with deep bowls of lobster salad, pates de foie gras, chickens, truffled turkeys, piles of hothouse fruit, and many other delicacies peculiarly appreciated at al fresco symposia; and, a little further away still, under the shade of a huge yellow gorse bush, were several ice-pails, in which were reposing many rows of gold-foiled bottles. The warm sun was just sufficiently tempered by a mild heather-scented breeze, and though it flashed gayly upon the glass and silver, and danced across the bosom of the blue water below, its heat was more pleasant than oppressive. The two women who sat there looked delightfully cool. Helen Thurwell especially, in her white holland gown, with a great bunch of heather stuck in her belt, and a faint healthy glow in her cheeks, looked as only an English country girl of good birth can look—the very personification of dainty freshness.
"There go the guns again!" she exclaimed. "Listen to the echoes. They can't be far away now."
There was a little murmur of satisfaction. Every allowance is to be made for such a keen sportsman as Mr. Thurwell on the glorious twelfth, but the time fixed for the rendezvous had been exceeded by more than an hour.
"I have reached the limit of my endurance!" Rachel Kynaston declared, getting up from her seat. "I must either lunch or faint! As a matter of choice, I prefer the former."
"They will be here directly, miss," Groves remarked, as he completed the finishing touches which he had been putting to the table, and stepped back a little to view the effect. So far as he was concerned they might come any time now. For once his subordinates had not failed him. Nothing had been forgotten; and, on the whole, he felt that he had reason to be proud of his handiwork.
He glanced away inland again, shading his eyes with his hand.
"They'll be coming round the Black Copse in five minutes," he said, half to himself. "James, get the other chairs out of the wagon."
Rachel Kynaston was still standing up looking around her. Suddenly her eyes fell upon a quaintly built cottage, perched upon the edge of the cliff about a mile away.
"I meant to ask you before, Helen," she exclaimed. "Who lives in that extraordinary-looking building—Falcon's Nest, I think you call it?"
She moved her parasol in its direction, and looked at it curiously. A strange-looking abode it certainly was; built of yellow stone, with a background of stunted fir trees which stretched half way down the cliff side.
Helen Thurwell looked across at it indifferently.
"I can tell you his name, and that is all," she answered. "He calls himself Mr. Brown—Mr. Bernard Brown."
"Well, who is he? What does he do?"
Helen shook her head.
"Really, I haven't the least idea," she declared. "I do not even know what he is like. He has been there for two months, and we haven't seen him yet. Papa called upon him, but he was out. He has not returned the call! He—oh, bother Mr. Brown, here they come! I'm so glad!"
They both got up and looked. Rounding the corner of a long plantation, about half a mile away, were several men in broken line, with their guns under their arms; and a little way behind came three keepers, carrying bags.
Rachel Kynaston looked at them fixedly.
"One, two, three, four, five," she counted. "One short. I don't see Geoffrey."
Helen moved to her side, and shaded her eyes with her hand. On the fourth finger a half hoop of diamonds, which had not been there three months ago, was flashing in the sunlight.
"Neither do I," she said. "I wonder where he is."
Her tone was a little indifferent, considering that it was her fiance who was missing. But no one ever looked for much display of feeling from Helen Thurwell, not even the man who called himself her lover. Indeed, her unresponsiveness to his advances—a sort of delicate composure which he was powerless in any way to break through—had been her strongest attraction to Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, who was quite unused to anything of the sort.
The men quickened their pace, and emptying their guns into the air, soon came within hailing distance. On that particular day of the year there was only one possible greeting, and Helen and her companion contented themselves with a monosyllable.
Mr. Thurwell was in the front rank, and evidently in the best of spirits. It was he who answered them.
"Capital sport!" he declared heartily. "Birds a little wild, but strong, and plenty of them. We've made a big bag for only three guns. Sir Geoffrey was in capital form. Groves, open a bottle of Heidseck."
"Where is Geoffrey?" asked Rachel—his sister.
Mr. Thurwell looked round and discovered his absence for the first time.
"I really don't know," he answered, a little bewildered; "He was with us a few minutes ago. What's become of Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, Heggs?" he asked, turning round to one of the gamekeepers.
"He left us at the top of the Black Copse, sir," the man answered. "He was coming round by the other side—shot a woodcock there once, sir," he said.
They glanced across the moor toward Falcon's Nest. There was no one in sight.
"He's had plenty of time to get round," remarked Lord Lathon, throwing down his gun. "Perhaps he's resting."
Mr. Thurwell shook his head.
"No; he wouldn't do that," he said. "He was as keen about getting here as any of us. Hark! what was that?"
A faint sound was borne across the moor on the lazily stirring breeze. Helen, whose hearing was very keen, started, and the little party exchanged uneasy glances.
"It must have been a sea-gull," remarked Lord Lathon, who wanted his luncheon very badly indeed. "We'd better not wait for him. He'll turn up all right; Geoffrey always does. Come——"
He broke off suddenly in his speech and listened. There was another sound, and this time there was no mistake about it. It was the low, prolonged howl of a spaniel—a mournful sound which struck a strange note in the afternoon stillness. There was breathless silence for a moment amongst the little group, and the becoming glow died out of Helen's cheek.
Rachel Kynaston was the first to recover herself.
"Had Sir Geoffrey a dog with him, Heggs?" she asked quickly.
"Yes, miss," the man answered. "His favorite spaniel had got unchained somehow, and found us on the moor. I saw her at heel when he left us. She was very quiet, and Sir Geoffrey wouldn't have her sent back."
"Then something has happened to him!" she cried. "That was Fido's howl."
"Has anyone heard his gun?" Mr. Thurwell asked.
There was no one left to answer him. They had all started across the moor toward the black patch of spinneys around which Sir Geoffrey should have come. Mr. Thurwell, forgetting his fatigue, hurried after them; and Helen, after a moment's hesitation, followed too, some distance behind.
She ran swiftly, but her dress caught often in the prickly gorse, and she had to pause each time to release herself. Soon she found herself alone, for the others had all turned the corner of the plantation before she reached it. There was a strong, sickly sense of coming disaster swelling in her heart, and her knees were tottering. Still she held on her way bravely. A few yards before she reached the corner of the plantation, she almost ran into the arms of Lord Lathon, who was hurrying back to meet her. There was a ghastly shade in his pale face, and his voice trembled.
"Miss Thurwell," he exclaimed in an agitated tone, "you must not come! Let me take you back. Something—has happened! I am going to Rachel. Come with me."
She drew away from him, and threw off his restraining arm.
"No; I must see for myself. Let me pass, please—at once."
He tried again to prevent her, but she eluded him. A few rapid steps and she had gained the corner. There they all were in a little group scarcely a dozen yards away. A mist floated before her eyes, but she would see; she was determined that she would see this thing for herself. She struggled on a few steps nearer. There was something lying on the grass around which they were all gathered; something very much like a human shape. Ah! she could see more plainly now. It was Sir Geoffrey—Sir Geoffrey Kynaston. He was lying half on the grass and half in the dry ditch. His white face was upturned to the cloudless sky; by his side, and discoloring his brown tweed shooting coat, was a dark wet stain. In the midst of it something bright was flashing in the sunlight.
She stood still, rooted to the spot with a great horror. Her pulses had ceased to beat. The warm summer day seemed suddenly to have closed in around her. There was a singing in her ears, and she found herself battling hard with a deadly faintness. Yet she found words.
"Has he—shot himself?" she cried. "Is it an accident?"
Her father turned round with a little cry, and hastened to her side.
"Helen!" he gasped. "You should not be here! Come away, child! I sent Lathon——"
"I will know—what it is. Is it an accident? Is he—dead?"
He shook his head. The healthy sunburnt tan had left his face, and he was white to the lips.
"He has been murdered!" he faltered. "Foully, brutally murdered!"
MR. BERNARD BROWN
Murder is generally associated in one's mind with darkness, the still hours of night, and bestiality. It is the outcome of the fierce animal lust for blood, provoked by low passions working in low minds. De Quincey's brilliant attempt to elevate it to a place among the fine arts has only enriched its horrors as an abstract idea. Even detached from its usual environment of darkness, and ignorance, and vice, it is an ugly thing.
But here was something quite different. Such a tragedy as this which had just occurred was possessed of a peculiar hideousness of its own. It seemed to have completely laid hold of the little group of men gathered round the body of Sir Geoffrey Kynaston; to have bereft them of all reasoning power and thought, to have numbed even their limbs and physical instincts. It was only a few minutes ago since they had left him, careless and debonair, with his thoughts intent upon the business, or rather the sport, of the hour. His laugh had been the loudest, his enjoyment the keenest, and his gun the most deadly of them all. But now he lay there cold and lifeless, with his heart's blood staining the green turf, and his sightless eyes dull and glazed. It was an awful thing!
Physically, he had been the very model of an English country gentleman, tall and powerful, with great broad shoulders, and strikingly upright carriage, full of vigorous animal life, with the slight restlessness of the constant traveler banished by his sudden passion for the girl who had so lately promised to be his wife.
She drew a little nearer—they were all too much overcome by the shock of this thing to prevent her—and stood with glazed eyes looking down upon him. Everything, even the minutest article of his dress, seemed to appeal to her with a strange vividness. She found herself even studying the large check of his shooting-coat and the stockings which she had once laughingly admired, and which he had ever since worn. Her eyes rested upon the sprig of heliotrope which, with her own fingers, she had arranged in his button hole, as they had strolled down the garden together just before the start; and the faint perfume which reached her where she stood, helped her to realize that she was in the thrall of no nightmare, but that this thing had really happened. She had never loved him, she had never even pretended to love him, and it was less any sense of personal loss than the hideous sin of it which swept in upon her as she stood there looking down upon him. She recognized, as she could never have done had he been personally dear to her, the ethical horror of the thing. The faintness which had almost numbed her senses passed away. In that swift battle of many sensations it was anger which survived.
Her voice first broke the deep, awed stillness.
"Who has done this?" she cried, pointing downward.
Her words were like a sudden awakening to them all. They had been standing like figures in a silent tableau, stricken dumb and motionless. Now there was a stir. The fire in her tone had dissolved their torpor. She was standing on rising ground a little above the rest of them, and her attitude, together with the gesture by which she enforced her words, was full of intense dramatic force. The slim undulating beauty of her form was enhanced by the slight disorder of her dress, and her red-gold hair—she had lost her hat—shone and glistened in the sunlight till every thread was shining like burnished gold. They themselves were in the shade of the dark pine trees, and she standing upon the margin of the moor with the warm sunlight glowing around her, seemed like a being of another world. Afterwards when they recalled that scene—and there was no one there who ever forgot it—they could scarcely tell which seemed the most terrible part to them—the lifeless body of the murdered man with the terrible writing of death in his white face, or the tragic figure of Helen Thurwell, the squire's cold, graceful daughter, with her placid features and whole being suddenly transformed with this wave of passion.
Mr. Thurwell drew a few steps backward, and his keen gray eyes swept the open country round.
"There was no one in sight when we got here; but the blackguard can't be far away!" he said. "Heggs, and you, Smith, and you, Cook, go through the spinney as fast as you can, one in the middle and one on each side, mind! I will go up Falcon's Hill and look round. Jem, run to Mallory as fast as you can for Dr. Holmes, and on to the police station. Quick! all of you. There's not a moment to lose!"
The desire for action was as strong in them now as had been their former torpor. Mr. Thurwell and his daughter were alone in less than a minute.
"Helen, I forgot you!" he exclaimed. "I can't leave you alone, and some one must stay here. Where is Lathon?"
"He has gone on to take Rachel home," she answered. "I will stay here. I am not afraid. Quick! you can see for miles from the top of the hill and you have your field glass. Oh, do go. Go!"
He hesitated, but she was evidently very much in earnest.
"I will just climb the hill and hurry down again," he said. "I cannot leave you here for more than a few minutes. If only we had more men with us!"
He turned away, and walked swiftly across the moor toward the hill. For a minute or two she stood watching his departing figure. Then she turned round with a shudder and buried her face in her clasped hands. Her appearance was less hard now and more natural, for a sickly sense of horror at the sight of his body was commencing to assert itself over that first strange instinct of passionate anger. It was none the less dreadful to her because in a certain way his removal was a release. She had promised to marry this man, but there had been scarcely a moment since when she had not found herself regretting it. Now the sense of freedom, which she could not altogether evade, was like torture to her. She dropped on her knees by his side, and took his cold hand in hers. A few hours ago she dared not have done this, knowing very well that at the caressing touch of her fingers, she would have felt his strong arms around her in a passionate and distasteful embrace. But there was no fear of this now. She would never have to shrink away from him again. He was dead!
The warm sunlight was glancing among the thickly growing pine trees in the plantation by her side, casting quaint shadows on the cone-strewn ground, across the little piece of broken paling in the bottom of the dry ditch, and upon the mossy bank where his head was resting upon a sweet-smelling tuft of heather. Most of all it flashed and glittered upon the inch or two of steel which still lay buried in his side—a curiously shaped little dagger which, although she strove to keep her eyes away from it, seemed to have a sort of fascination for her. Every time her eyes fell upon it, she turned away quickly with a little shudder; but, nevertheless, she looked at it more than once—and she remembered it.
The deep stillness of the autumn afternoon presently became almost oppressive to her. There was the far-off, sweet low murmur of a placid sea rolling in upon the base of the cliffs, the constant chirping of ground insects, and the occasional scurrying of a rabbit through the undergrowth. Once a great lean rat stole up from the ditch, and—horrible—ran across his body; but at the sound of her startled movement it paused, sat for a moment quite still, with its wide-open black eyes blinking at her, and then to her inexpressible relief scampered away. She was used to the country, with its intense unbroken silence, but she had never felt it so hard to bear as on that afternoon. Time became purely relative to her. As a matter of fact, she knew afterwards that she could not have been alone more than five minutes. It was like an eternity. She listened in vain for any human sound, even for the far-off sweep of the scythe in the bracken, or the call of the laborer to his horses. The tension of those moments was horrible.
She plucked a handful of bay leaves from the ditch, and strove, by pressing them against her temple, to cool the fever in her blood. Then she took up once more her position by his side, for horrible though the sight of it was, his body seemed to have a sort of fascination for her, and she could not wander far away from it. Once or twice she had looked round, but there had been no human figure in sight, nor any sign of any. But as she knelt there on the short turf, pressing the cool leaves to her aching forehead, she was suddenly conscious of a new sensation. Without hearing or seeing anything, she knew that some one was approaching, and, stranger still, she was conscious of a distinct reluctance to turn her head and see who it was. She heard no footsteps; the soft stillness was broken by the sound of no human voice. She wished to turn round, and yet she shrank from it. Something fresh was going to happen—something was at hand to trouble her. She made a great effort, and rose to her feet. Then, breaking through her conscious reluctance, she turned round.
A single figure, at that moment on a slightly elevated ridge of the bare moor, stood out against the sky. He was walking swiftly toward her, and yet without any appearance of hurry; and from the direction in which he was coming, it was evident that he had just left Falcon's Nest. This fact and his being unknown to her sufficiently established his identity. It was her father's tenant, Mr. Bernard Brown.
AN EVIL END TO AN EVIL LIFE
They say that, as a rule, the most grotesquely unimportant trifles flash into the mind and engage the last thoughts of a drowning man. Regarding this in the light of an analogy, something of the same sort was now happening to Helen Thurwell.
With her mind steeped in the horror of the last few hours, she yet found that she was able afterwards to recall every slight particular with regard to this man's appearance, and even his dress. She remembered the firm evenness of his movements, swift, yet free from all ungraceful haste; the extreme shabbiness of his coat, his ill-arranged neck-tie, escaped from all restraint of collar and waistcoat, and flying loosely behind him; his trousers very much turned up, and very much frayed, and the almost singular height of his loose angular figure. His face, too—she remembered that better than anything—with its pale hollow cheeks and delicate outline, deep-set dark blue eyes, black eyebrows, and long, unkempt hair, which would have looked very much the better for a little trimming. A man utterly regardless of his appearance, untidy, almost slovenly in his attire, yet with something about him different from other men.
He was within a few yards of her when she saw a sudden change flash into his face as their eyes met. He hesitated and a faint color came into his cheeks, only to fade away again immediately, leaving them whiter than ever. There was something in his intense gaze which at that time she had no means of understanding. But it was over in a moment. He advanced rapidly, and stood by her side.
She still watched him. She could see that his whole frame was vibrating with strong internal emotion as he looked downward on the glazed eyes and motionless form of the murdered man. His lips were pallid, and his hands were tightly clasped together. There was one thing which seemed to her very strange. He had not started, or exhibited the least sign of surprise at the dreadful sight. It was almost as though he had known all about it.
"This is a terrible thing," she said in a low tone, breaking the silence between them for the first time. "You have heard of it, I suppose?"
He dropped down on one knee, and bent close over the dead man, feeling his heart and pulse. In that position his face was hidden from her.
"No; I knew nothing. He has been killed—like this?"
"Did anyone see it? Is the man caught?"
"We know nothing," she answered. "We found him like this. There was no one in sight."
He rose deliberately to his feet. Her heart was beating fast now, and she looked searchingly into his face. It told her little. He was grave, but perfectly composed.
"How is it that you are alone here?" he asked. "Does no one else know of this?"
She moved her head in assent.
"Yes; but they have all gone to hunt for the murderer. If only you had been looking from your window, you would have seen it all!"
He did not look as though he shared her regret. He was standing on the other side of the dead man, with his arms folded and his eyes fixed steadily upon the cold white face. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.
"An evil end to an evil life," he said slowly to himself, and then he added something which she did not hear.
"You knew him, then?"
He looked at her for a moment fixedly, and then down again into the dead man's face.
"I have heard of him abroad," he said. "Sir Geoffrey Kynaston was a man with a reputation."
"You will remember that he is dead," she said slowly, for the scorn in his words troubled her.
He bowed his head, and was silent. Watching him closely, she could see that he was far more deeply moved than appeared on the surface. His teeth were set together, and there was a curious faint flush of color in his livid cheeks. She followed his eyes, wondering. They were fixed, not upon the dead man's face, but on the dagger which lay buried in his heart, and the handle of which was still visible.
"That should be a clue," he remarked, breaking a short silence.
"Yes. I hope to God that they will find the wretch!" she answered passionately.
She looked up at him as she spoke. His eyes were traveling over the moor, and his hand was shading them.
"There is some one coming," he said. "We shall know very soon."
She followed his rapt gaze, and saw three men coming toward them. One was her father, another the underkeeper, and the third was a stranger.
THE INNER ROOM AT THE FALCON'S NEST
Together they watched the approaching figures. Helen, standing a little apart, had the better view.
"There is my father, and Heggs, and some one whom I do not know," she announced quietly. "I wonder if it is a doctor."
He did not answer her. She glanced toward him, wondering at his silence and rigid attitude. His eyes were still bent upon the three men, and there was a hard, strained look in his white face. While she was watching him she saw a spasm of what seemed almost like physical pain pass across his countenance. Certainly this was no unfeeling man. In his way he seemed as deeply moved as she herself was.
They were quite close now, and she had a good view of the stranger. He did not look, by any means, a person to be afraid of. In all her life she thought she had never seen such a handsome old gentleman—and gentleman he most assuredly was. His hair was quite white, and his beard—carefully trimmed and pointed after the fashion of one of Velasquez' pictures—was of the same color. Yet his walk was upright and vigorous, and he carried himself with dignity. His high forehead, and rather long, oval face, with its delicate, clearly cut features, had at once the stamp of intellect and benevolence, and, as though preserved by careful and refined living, had still much of the freshness of youth. He was dressed in a rough tweed walking-suit, with gaiters and thick boots, and carried under his arm a somewhat ponderous book, and a botanical specimen case. Helen felt a woman's instinctive liking for him before she had even heard him speak.
"Have you thought us long, Helen?" her father exclaimed anxiously. "We haven't seen anything of the scoundrel, but Heggs was fortunate enough to meet Sir Allan Beaumerville on the moor, and he very kindly offered to return."
Sir Allan was on his knees by the body before Mr. Thurwell had finished his sentence. They all watched his brief examination.
"Poor fellow! poor fellow!" he exclaimed in a shocked tone. "That wretched thing"—lightly touching the handle of the dagger—"is clean through his heart. It was a strong, cruel arm that drove that home. Nothing can be done, of course. He must have died within a few seconds!" He rose from his knees and looked around. "What is to be done with the body?" he asked. "It must be removed somewhere. Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, did you say it was? Dear me! dear me! I knew his sister quite well."
"She is not far away," Mr. Thurwell said. "She and my daughter were awaiting luncheon for us on the cliffs yonder, when this horrible thing occurred. Lathon went back to look for her. We were afraid that she might follow us here. She was very fond of her brother, and he had only just returned home after many years' traveling."
"Poor fellow!" Sir Allan said softly. "But about moving him. Who lives in that queer-looking place yonder?"
Mr. Thurwell, who knew his tenant by sight, although they had never spoken, looked at him and hesitated. Sir Allan did the same.
"That is where I live," Mr. Brown said slowly. "If Mr. Thurwell thinks well, let him be taken there."
He spoke without looking round or addressing any one in particular. His back was turned upon the celebrated physician.
"The nearest place would be best, in a case like this," Sir Allan remarked. "Have you sent for any help?"
"Some of my men are coming across the moor there," Mr. Thurwell said, pointing them out. "They can take a gate off the hinges to carry him on."
A little troop of awed servants, whom Lord Lathon had sent down from the Court, together with some farm laborers whom they had picked up on the way, were soon on the spot.
Mr. Thurwell gave some brief directions, and in a few minutes the high five-barred gate, with "private" painted across it in white letters, was taken from its hinges, and the body carefully laid upon it. Then Mr. Thurwell turned resolutely to his daughter.
"Helen, you must go home now," he said firmly. "Jackson will take you. We can spare him easily."
She shook her head.
"I would rather stay," she said quietly. "I shall not faint, or do anything stupid, I promise you."
Sir Allan Beaumerville looked at her curiously. It was a strange thing to him, notwithstanding his wide experience, to find a girl of her years so little outwardly moved by so terrible a tragedy. Mr. Thurwell, too, was surprised. He knew that she had never loved Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, but, nevertheless, he had expected her to show more emotion than this, if only for the horror of it all. And yet, looking at her more closely, he began to understand—to realize that her calmness was only attained by a strenuous repression of feeling, and that underneath it all was something very different. Though her voice was firm, her cheeks were deadly pale, and there was a peculiar tightening of the lips and light in her eyes which puzzled him. Her expression seemed to speak less of passive grief, than of some active determination—some strong desire. She had all the appearance of a woman who was bracing herself up for some ordeal, nerving herself with all the stimulus of a firm will to triumph over her natural feelings, and follow out a difficult purpose. Mr. Thurwell scarcely recognized his own daughter. She was no longer a somewhat languid, beautiful girl, looking out upon the world with a sort of petulant indifference—petulant, because, with all the high aspirations of a somewhat romantic disposition, she could see nothing in it to interest her. All that had passed away. The warm breath of some awakening force in her nature seemed to have swept before it all her languor, and all her petulance. They were gone, and in their place was a certain air of reserve and thoughtful strength which seems always to cling to those men and women who face the world with a definite purpose before them. Mr. Thurwell knitted his brows, and had nothing to say.
A sad little procession was formed, and started slowly for the cottage on the cliff side, the four stalwart men stooping beneath their heavy burden, and somehow falling into the measured steady tramp common to corpse bearers. None of them ever forgot that walk. Slowly they wound their way around many brilliant patches of deep yellow gorse and purple heather, and the warm sunlight glancing across the moor and glittering away over the water threw a strange glow upon the still, cold face of their ghastly burden. A soft breeze sprung from the sea, herald of the advancing eventide, following the drowsy languor of the perfect autumnal day. The faintly stirred air was full of its quickening exhilaration, but it found no human response in their heavy hearts. Solemn thoughts and silence came over all of them. Scarcely a word was spoken on the way to their destination.
By some chance, or at least it seemed like chance, Helen found herself a few steps behind the others, with Mr. Brown by her side. They, too, walked along in unbroken silence. His eyes were steadily fixed upon the ground, hers were wandering idly across the sparkling blue sea with its foam-crested furrows to the horizon. Whatever her thoughts were, they had changed her expression for the time; to a certain extent its late definiteness was gone, and a dreamy, refined abstraction had taken its place.
"If I had to die," she said, half to herself, "I would choose to die on such a day as this."
He raised his dark eyes and looked at her.
"I scarcely know," she said hesitatingly. "And yet, in my own mind, I do. It is so beautiful! It seems to give one a sense of peace and hope—I cannot explain it. It is the sort of thing one feels, and feels only."
He looked down again.
"I know what you mean. You would fear annihilation less?"
"Annihilation! Is that your creed?"
"Sometimes, if it were not for scenes like this, I might believe it possible," he answered slowly. "As it is, I do not! The exquisite beauty of the earth denies it! I pin my faith to a great analogy. The natural world is a reflex of the spiritual, and in the natural world there is no annihilation. Nothing can ever die. Nor can our souls ever die."
She looked at him keenly. The dreamy speculation had gone from her eyes. The fire of her former purpose had returned.
"It is well to feel like that. You would rather be Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, then, than his murderer, even now?"
He raised his hand quickly to his forehead, as though in pain. It was gone in an instant, but she had been watching.
"Yes, I would," he answered fervently. "Sir Geoffrey was a wicked man, but he may have repented. He had his opportunities."
"How do you know that he was wicked?" she asked quickly.
"I heard of him abroad—many years ago. Will you excuse me, Miss Thurwell. I must hurry on and open the door for them."
He walked swiftly on, leaving her alone. When they reached their destination, he was there waiting for them.
It was a strangely situated and strangely built abode. A long low building of deep yellow stone, half hidden by various creepers, and inaccessible on the side from which they approached it save to foot passengers. From the bottom of the winding path which they had to climb it seemed to hang almost sheer over the cliff side. A thickly growing patch of stunted pine trees rising abruptly in the background literally overtopped the tiled roof. From the summit of this plantation to the sea was one abrupt precipice, thickly overgrown for the first hundred feet or so by pine trees growing out from the side of the cliff in strange huddled fashion, the haunt of sea birds and a few daring rabbits.
They passed in at the hand-gate, and toiled up the steep path, threading their way among a wilderness of overgrown box shrubs, long dank grass and strange weeds. Helen, with her eyes fixed upon an open window on the right wing of the cottage, fell a little behind. The others came to a halt before the open door.
Mr. Brown met them and preceded them along the passage.
"I think he had better be carried in here," he said, motioning toward the room on the left-hand side, the side remote from the sea. "I have brought a sofa."
They stood on the threshold and looked in. The room was absolutely unfurnished, and the shutters had only just been thrown back, letting in long level gleams of sunlight, which fell upon the bare floor and damp walls, from which the discolored paper was commencing to peel off. Long cobwebs hung from the ceiling, waving slowly backward and forward in the unaccustomed draught. Helen Thurwell, who had just joined the little group, with a curious light in her eyes, and a deep spot of color in her pale cheeks, looked around and shivered. Mr. Thurwell, with a landlord's instinct, began to wonder who was at fault, his agent or his tenant.
The four men tramped in, their footsteps sounding dreary and mournful on the uncarpeted floor, and awakening strange rumbling echoes. Helen looked at them for a moment, all clustered round the single sofa which stood in the middle of the apartment, and then stepped softly back again into the hall. She looked around her eagerly, yet with no idle curiosity.
The whole interior of the place appeared bare and comfortless. There were no rugs in the hall, no carpet on the stairs, nor a single sign of habitation. Nor was there any servant about. She looked again into the room out of which she had just stepped. They were preparing to lift the body from the gate, which they had laid upon the floor, on to the sofa. She stepped back into the hall, and listened. There was no sound from any other part of the house. They were all too deeply engrossed to think of her. It was her chance!
She was very pale, and very resolute. The look which had come into her face for so short a time ago had had its meaning. The time for action had come. It was sooner than she had expected; but she was ready.
With swift noiseless step she crossed the hall and softly turned the handle of the door on the opposite side. It opened at once, and she stepped inside. She listened again. As yet she was undetected. She drew a little breath and glanced searchingly around her.
This room, too, was unfurnished, save that the floor was covered with cases full of books. Straight in front of her was another door, leading, as she knew, into a smaller apartment. Dare she go forward? She listened for a moment. There was no sound save the low muffled voices of the men who were lifting Sir Geoffrey on to the couch. Supposing she were discovered here? At the most, she would be suspected of a vulgar curiosity. It all flashed through her mind in a moment, and her decision was taken. Gathering her skirts in her hand lest they should catch against the edges of the cases, she threaded her way through them, and stood before the door of the inner room. She tried the handle. It yielded easily to her touch. She had gone too far to draw back now. In a moment she had passed the threshold, and the whole contents of the little room were disclosed to her.
Of all the senses, the eyes seem to carry the most lasting impression to the brain. One eager glance around, and the whole seemed photographed into her memory. A little strip of faded carpet only half covering the floor, piles upon piles of books, and a small table littered all over with foolscap, a few fine prints and etchings roughly hung upon the walls, a group of exquisite statuettes all huddled together, and an oak cabinet strongly bound with brass clasps—they were the things she chiefly remembered. The whole room was in the wildest disorder, as though the contents had been just shot inside and left to arrange themselves.
After that single cursory glance, Helen looked no more around her. Her whole attention was riveted upon the window exactly opposite. As she had seen from the outside, it was wide open, and several branches of a shrub growing up against it were broken off. From the leaves of the same shrub several drops of water were hanging, and on the ground below was a wet patch. She looked back into the room again. In one corner was an empty basin, and by its side, rolled up tightly, was a rough towel.
Before she could make any movement in that direction, another thing struck her. On a certain spot close by the side of the basin a pile of books was arranged in disorderly fashion enough, but with some little method. An idea flashed in upon her. They were arranged in that manner to hide something upon the floor.
She made a quick motion forward. Then she stopped short, and lifted her eyes to the door. Her cheeks burned, and her heart beat fast. Sir Allan Beaumerville was standing on the threshold, looking at her in mute amazement, and over his shoulder was the pale stern face of Mr. Brown.
A TERRIBLE ENEMY
Afterwards Helen looked back upon those few moments as the most uncomfortable of her life. She was caught in the very act of a most unwarrantable and even immodest intrusion, which in the eyes of these two men could only appear like the attempted gratification of a reprehensible and vulgar curiosity. She made one spasmodic attempt to kindle her suspicions into a definite accusation, to stand upon her dignity, and demand an explanation of what she had seen. But she failed utterly. Directly she tried to clothe the shreds of this idea of hers with words, and to express them, she seemed to vividly realize the almost ludicrous improbability of the whole thing. One glance into the pale, dignified face which was bent upon her full of unconcerned surprise—and hateful to her with a gentle shade of pity at her confusion already creeping into it—and her attempt collapsed. She felt her cheeks burn with shame, and her eyes drooped before his steady gaze. She began to long feverishly for something to dissolve the situation. The silence was dreadful to her, but she could think of nothing to say. It was Mr. Brown, at last, who spoke.
"I was afraid you would not be able to find your way, Miss Thurwell," he said quietly. "I must apologize for asking you to come into such a den. The small engraving on the wall is the proof 'Bartolozzi' I spoke to you about. The head is perfect, is it not? Some day I should like to show you my 'Guido.' I am afraid, just now, I could not expect you to appreciate them."
She murmured something—what, she scarcely knew, and he did not appear to hear. The cold surprise disappeared from Sir Allan's face. Evidently he believed in Mr. Brown's mercifully offered explanation of her presence here.
"What! are you an enthusiast, Miss Thurwell?" he exclaimed. "Well, well, I was worse myself once in my younger days, before my profession made a slave of me. Surely, that is a genuine 'Velasquez,' Mr. Brown. Upon my word! Fancy coming across such a treasure here!"
He picked his way across the disorderly chamber, and, adjusting his eyeglass, stood looking at the picture. Helen made a hasty movement towards the door, and Mr. Brown followed her into the adjoining room.
"If I had known that I was to be honored by a visit from a lady," he said, "I would have endeavored——"
She turned suddenly round upon him with flaming cheeks.
"Don't," she interrupted, almost beseechingly. "Mr. Brown, you were very good to me just then. Thank you! I was most abominably rude to go into that room without your permission."
Her eyes were fixed upon the floor, and her distress was evident. It was clear that she felt her position acutely.
"Pray say no more about it," he begged earnestly. "It isn't worth a second thought."
She stopped with her back to one of the great cases filled with books, and hesitated. Should she confess to him frankly why she had gone there, and ask his pardon for such a wild thought? She raised her eyes slowly, and looked at him. Of course it was absurd. She has been out of her mind, she knew that now; and yet——
She looked at him more closely still. He had not seemed in any way disturbed when they had found her in that room—only a little surprised and bewildered. And yet, after all, supposing his composed demeanor had been only assumed. He was certainly very pale, very pale indeed, and there was a slight twitching of his hands which was out of character with his absolute impassiveness. Supposing it should be a forced composure. He looked like a man capable of exercising a strong control over his feelings. Supposing it should be so. Was there not, after all, just a chance that her former suspicions were correct?
The action of the mind is instantaneous. All these thoughts and doubts merely flashed through it, and they left her very confused and undecided. Her sense of gratitude towards him for shielding her before Sir Allan Beaumerville, and the intuitive sympathy of her nature with the delicacy and tact which he had shown in his manner of doing so, were on the whole stronger than her shadowy suspicions. And yet these latter had just sufficient strength to check the impulse of generosity which prompted her to confess everything to him. She did not tell him why she had started on the quest which had come to such an ignominious conclusion. She offered him no explanation whatever.
"It was very good of you," she repeated. "I did not deserve it at all. And now I must go and look for my father."
Mr. Thurwell was waiting in the hall, somewhat surprised at her absence. But he asked no questions. His thoughts were too full of the terrible thing which had happened to his friend and neighbor—and withal his daughter's betrothed.
They walked back across the moor together, saying very little, for there was only one possible subject for conversation, and both of them shrank a little from speaking about it. But when they were more than half-way to their destination, she asked a question.
"Nothing has been discovered, I suppose, of the murderer?"
Her father shook his head.
"Nothing. The dagger is our only clue as yet—except this."
He drew a folded piece of paper from his pocket, and touched it lightly with his finger.
"What is it? May I see?"
He handed it to her at once.
"It was in his pocket," he said. "I am keeping it to hand over to the proper authorities. Mr. Brown offered to take care of it, but I felt that, as a magistrate, I was in a measure responsible for everything in the shape of a clue, so I brought it away with me. Read it."
She opened the half sheet of notepaper and glanced down it. It was written in a queer cramped handwriting—evidently disguised.
"Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, you are doing a very rash and foolish thing in coming back to your own country, and thereby publishing your whereabouts to the world. Have you forgotten what hangs over you—or can you be so mad as to think that he has forgiven? Read this as a warning; and if life is in any way dear to you, go back to that hiding which alone has kept you safe for so many years. Do not hesitate or delay for one half-hour—one minute may be too long. If, after reading this, you linger in England, and disregard my warning, take care that you look into your life and hold yourself prepared to die."
She gave it back to him. There was some one, then, whom he had injured very deeply. It was like an echo from that stormy past of which many people had spoken.
"He had an enemy," she murmured, passing her arm through her father's.
"It seems so," he answered. "A terrible enemy."
HELEN THURWELL'S SUSPICIONS
On a certain September day, about six weeks after the funeral of Sir Geoffrey Kynaston, Mr. Brown was spending what appeared to be a very pleasant afternoon. He was lying stretched out at full length on a dry mossy bank, with a volume of Shelley in his hand, and a case of thick Egyptian cigarettes by his side. In his ears was the whispering of the faint breeze amongst the pines, and the soft murmuring of the sea, hundreds of feet below, seen like a brilliant piece of patchwork through the fluttering leaves and dark tree-trunks which surrounded him. There was nothing to disturb the sweet silence of the drowsy afternoon. It was a charming spot which he had chosen, and he was quite alone. People, amongst whom for the last few weeks his name had become a fruitful source of conversation, were already beginning to fancy him flying across the country in an express train, or loitering on the docks at Liverpool, waiting for an Atlantic liner, or sitting at home trembling and fearful, struggling to hide his guilt beneath a calm exterior. But, as a matter of fact, he was doing none of these things. The harsh excitement of the busy gossips, and their stern judgment, troubled him nothing, for he was unconscious of them. He was away in thoughtland, dreaming of a fair, proud young face seen first on the rude pavement of an old Italian town, where its sweet composed freshness, amongst a pile of magnificent ruins, had captivated his artist's sense almost before it had touched his man's heart. He thought of the narrow street shutting in the sky till, looking upwards, it seemed like one deep band of glorious blue—of the ruined grey palace, with still some traces left of its former stately grace, and of the fountain playing in the moss-encrusted courtyard, gleaming like silver in the sunlight as it rose and fell into the worn stone basin. Here, where the very air seemed full of the records of a magnificent decay, everything seemed to form a fitting framework in his memory for that one face. It had been an artist's dream—or had it been the man's? Never the latter; he told himself sadly. Such were not for him. It had been better far that he had never seen her again. Before, the memory had been a very sweet one, stored away in his mind amongst all the great and beautiful things he had seen in his wanderings, always with a dainty freshness clinging to it, as though it had lain carefully preserved in perfume and spices. Was this new joy, of having seen and spoken to her, a better thing? this vague unsettlement of his being, which played havoc with his thoughts, and stirred up a whole host of strange new feelings in his heart? Surely not! It seemed to him like the breathing of warm new life into what had been a crystallized emotion—the humanizing of something spiritual. Surely, for him, it had better have remained in that first stage.
There was the sound of a light footstep on the springy turf. He started to his feet. A girl, tall and slim, was coming swiftly along the winding path through the plantation towards him. He knew at once that it was Helen Thurwell.
They were both equally surprised. As she looked up and saw him standing upright in the narrow path, tall, thin, and unnaturally pale, with the cigarette still burning between his fingers, and his book in his other hand, she felt strangely stirred. Neither was he unmoved by her sudden appearance, for though not a feature twitched, not a single gleam of color relieved the still pallor of his face, there was a new light in his dry brilliant eyes. But there was a vast difference between the thoughts which flashed into his mind and those which filled hers. To him there had stolen a sweetness into the summer's day surpassing the soft sunlight, and a presence which moved every pulse in his being, and crept like maddening fire through every sense. And to her, the sight of him was simply a signal to brace up all her powers of perception; to watch with suspicion every change of his features, and every tone of his voice. Had he shown any emotion at the sight of her, she would have attributed it to a guilty conscience, and would have made note of it in her mind against him. And as he showed none—none, at least, that she could detect—she put it down to the exercise of a strong will, and was a little disappointed. For she had gone with the tide, and, womanlike, having embraced an idea, it had already become as truth to her. Mr. Brown was the man who had murdered Sir Geoffrey Kynaston. It was a murderer with whom she was standing side by side among the glancing shadows of the rustling pine groves. It must be so!
Yet she did not shrink from him. After her first hesitation at the sight of a man's figure standing up amongst the dark tree-trunks, she had walked steadily on until she had reached him. And he, without any change of countenance, had simply stood and watched her. God! how beautiful she was! The sunlight, gleaming through the tops of the trees in long slanting rays, played like fire upon her red-gold hair; and the plain black gown, which yielded easily to her graceful movements, seemed to show every line of her supple yet delicate figure. She came nearer still, so near that he could trace the faint blue veins in her forehead, and once more recall the peculiar color of her eyes. Then he spoke to her, raising his hand with a suddenly returning instinct of conventionality for his cap; but he had risen without it, and was standing before her bare-headed.
"I am a trespasser, I fear," he said hesitatingly.
She came to a standstill by his side, and shook her head slowly.
"No, this is common land. There is a footpath, you see, although it is seldom used. It leads nowhere but to the Court."
"It is a favorite walk of mine," he said.
"Yes, it is pleasant. You bring a companion with you," she remarked, pointing to his book.
He glanced down at it, and then up at her again.
"Yes; a faithful friend, too. We spend a good deal of time out of doors together."
She read the title, and glanced up at him with a shade of interest in her face.
"Shelley was a great poet, I suppose," she said; "but I do not understand him."
For the first time his expression changed. A sudden light swept across his face, and in a moment it was glowing with sensibility and enthusiasm. She looked at him astonished. He stood before her revealed in a new light, and, although unwillingly, she saw him with different eyes.
"Not understand Shelley! Ah! but that is because you have not tried, then. If you had, you would not only understand, but you would love him."
She shook her head. In reality she felt that he was right, that her languid attempts to read him by a drawing-room fire, with the Queen beside her, and her mind very full of very little things, had not been the spirit in which to approach a great poet. But, partly out of womanly perversity, and partly out of curiosity to hear what he would say, she chose to dissent from him.
"I find him too mystical," she said; "too incomprehensible."
He looked down at her from his superior height with kindling eyes. It was odd how greatly she was surprised in him. She had imagined him to be a cynic.
"Mystical!" he repeated. "Yes, in a certain sense, he is so; and it is his greatest charm. But incomprehensible!—no. The essence of all artistic poetry is in the perfect blending of matter and form, so that the meaning creeps in upon us, but with a certain vagueness, a certain indefiniteness, which reaches us more in the shade of a dreamy consciousness than through the understanding. May I give you an illustration? We stand upon a low plain and gaze upon a far-off range of hills, from the sides of which thick clouds of white mist are hanging. Gradually, as the sun rises higher in the heavens, they float away, and we begin dimly to see through a clearer atmosphere the yellow corn waving on the brown hillside, the smoke rising from the lonely farmhouse, and, if we have patience and wait still, by-and-by we can even distinguish the brilliant patches of wild flowers, the poppies and the cornflowers in the golden fields, and the marsh marigolds in the meadows at the foot of the hill. It is a question of waiting long enough. So it is with what people call mysticism in poetry."
For the first time for many months a faint color had found its way into his wan cheeks. His face was alight with interest, and his dark eyes shone from their deep hollows with a new, soft fire. From that moment he assumed a new place in her thoughts. She was loath to grant it to him, but she had no alternative. Guilty or innocent, this man had something in him which placed him high above other men in her estimation. She felt stirred in a manner peculiarly grateful to her. It was as though every chord of her being had been tuned into fresh harmony; as though the hand of a magician had lifted the curtain which had enclosed her too narrow life, and had shown her a new world glowing with beauty and promise. She, too, wanted to feel like that; to taste the pleasures which this man tasted, and to feel the enthusiasm which had lit up his pale scholarly face.
At that moment her mind was too full to harbor those dark suspicions. With a sudden effort she threw them overboard, trampled on them, scouted them. Was this the face and the tongue of a murderer? Surely not!
"Thank you," she said softly. "I shall like to think over what you have said. Now I must go."
Her words seemed to bring him back to his old self. He stooped down and picked up his cap.
"You are going back to the Court?" he asked. "Let me walk to the end of the plantation with you."
She assented silently, and they turned along the narrow path side by side. Below them a bracken-covered cliff, studded with dwarfed trees, ran down to the sea; and on their left hand the black firs, larger and growing more thickly together, shut out completely the open moorland beyond. He had walked there before beneath a sky of darker blue, and when there had been only stray gleams of moonlight shining through the cone-laden boughs to show him the rough path; and he had been there when the tree-tops had bent beneath the shrieking wind, when the black clouds had been flying over his head, and the roar of the angry sea had filled the air with thunder. And these things had stirred him—one of nature's sons—in many ways. Yet none of them had sent the warm blood coursing through his veins like quicksilver, or had stolen through his senses with such sweet heart-stirring impetuosity as did the presence of this tall, fair girl, walking serenely by his side in thoughtful silence. Once, when too near the edge of the cliff, she put her foot on a fir-cone and stumbled, and the touch of her hand, as he caught hold of it to steady her, sent a thrill of keen, exquisite pleasure through his whole frame. He held it perhaps a little longer than necessary, and she let him. For the moment she had lost the sense of physical touch, and the firm grasp of his fingers upon hers seemed to her, in a certain sense, only an analogy to the sudden sympathy which had sprung up between them. Even when realization came, she drew her hand away gently, without anger, without undue haste even. One glance into his face at that moment would have told her everything; the whole horror of the situation would have flashed in upon her, and she would have been overwhelmed. But she did not look, and long before they had come to the end of the path the passionate light had died out from his eyes, and had left no trace behind. Once more he was only a plain, sad-looking man, hollow-eyed and hollow-cheeked, with bent head and stooping frame.
DID YOU KILL SIR GEOFFREY KYNASTON?
At the extremity of the plantation they came to a small wicket-gate opening out on to the cliff top. From here there was a path inland to the Court, whilst Falcon's Nest was straight in front of them. At the parting of the ways they hesitated, for it seemed necessary that they should part.
And whilst they looked around a little dazzled, having just emerged from the darkness of the plantation, they were conscious of a new glory in the heavens. Far away across the moorland the autumn sun had shot its last rays over the level plain and sea, and had sunk quietly to rest. It was not one of Turner's wild sunsets. There were no banks of angry clouds full of lurid coloring, flashing their glory all over the western sky. But in a different fashion it was equally beautiful. Long level streaks of transparent light, emerging from an ethereal green to a deep orange, lay stretched across the heavens, and a faint golden haze rising from the land seemed to mingle with them, and form one harmonious mass of coloring. And the air too was different—purer and rarer than the enervating atmosphere of the drowsy afternoon. Together they stood and became subject to the subtle charm of their environment. It seemed to Helen Thurwell then that a change was creeping into her life. Impersonal thought had attained a new strength and a new sweetness. But at that time she had no knowledge of what it meant.
"See!" he exclaimed softly, pointly westward, "there is what Coleridge made dear to us for ever, and Byron vainly scoffed at—the 'green light that lingers in the west.'"
He repeated the stanza absently, and half to himself, with a sudden oblivion of her presence—
"It were a vain endeavor, Though I should gaze for ever On that green light that lingers in the west. I may not hope from outward forms to win The passion and the life whose fountains are within."
She watched him as his voice sank lower and lower, and though his eyes were dry and bright, she saw a look of intense sadness sweep across his face. Almost she felt inclined to let her natural sympathy escape her—to let loose the kind and tender words which had leapt up from her heart, and even trembled upon her lips. But a rush of consciousness came, and she choked them back. Thus much she could do, but no more. She could not at that moment look upon him as the man already suspected in many quarters of a most brutal murder. For the instant, all was blotted out. Had she tried she could not at that moment have revived her own suspicions. They seemed to her like some grotesque fungi of the mind—poisonous weeds to be crushed and destroyed. But the seed was there.
"Those are the saddest lines I ever read," she said quietly. "It is a true ode to dejection."
"And therefore they are very precious," he answered. "It is always sweet to find your own emotions so exquisitely expressed. It is like a spiritual narcotic."
"And yet—yet such poems encourage sadness, and that is morbid."
He shook his head.
"To be sad is not necessarily to be unhappy," he answered. "That sounds like a paradox, but it isn't! You remember the 'gentle melancholy' which Milton loved. There is something sweet in that, is there not?"
"But it is not like that with you," she said quickly.
He threw his arms up into the air with a sudden wild gesture of absolute despair. She had touched a chord in his nature too roughly, and it had not stood the strain. For a moment he had thrown off his mask. His white face was ghastly, and his eyes were burning with a hopeless passion.
"My God! No!" he cried. "I am in the depths of hell, with never a gleam of hope to lead me on. And the sin—the sin——"
He stopped suddenly, and his hands fell to his side. Slowly he turned round and looked at her, half doubtfully, half fearfully. What had he said? What had she heard? What did that look in her face mean—that look of anguish, of fear, of horror? Why did she not speak, even though it were to accuse him? Anything rather than that awful silence.
Twice she moved her white lips, but no sound came. The power of articulation seemed gone. Then she caught him by the arm, and turned him slowly round so that he faced his cottage. Only a few yards below them was the spot where she and her sister-in-law that was to have been had lolled in their low chairs by the luncheon-table, and had begun to feel impatient for the coming of one who had never come. Further away still, across the moor, was that dark circular patch of plantation behind which Sir Geoffrey Kynaston had been found, and away upon the cliffs overlooking the scene of the murder was Falcon's Nest.
The grasp on his arm tightened. Then she stretched out her other hand, and with shaking fingers pointed downwards—pointed to the very spot where the deed had been done. The memory of it all came back to her, and hardened her set white face. She looked him straight in the eyes without a quiver, and clenched her teeth.
"Did you—do that?" she asked in a firm, hard tone.
A curious mind slumber seemed to have crept over him. His eyes followed her outstretched hand, and his lips idly repeated her words.
"Did you kill Sir Geoffrey Kynaston?"
Her words fell sharp and clear upon the still air. A tremor passed through his whole frame, and the light of a sudden understanding flashed across his face. He was his old self again, and more than his old self.
"You are joking, of course, Miss Thurwell?" he said quietly. "You do not mean that seriously?"
She caught her breath, and looked at him. After all, it is only a step from tragedy to commonplace. He was deathly pale, but calm and composed. He had conquered himself just in time. Another moment, and she felt assured that she would have known all. Never mind! it should come, she told herself. The end was not yet.
"No; of course I did not mean it seriously," she repeated slowly. "Who are those men coming up the hill? Can you see?"
He moved a little nearer to her, and looked downward. On the slope of the hill were three men. She had recognized them already, and she watched him steadily.
"Your father is one," he said quietly. "The other two are strangers to me."
"Perhaps I can tell you something about them," she said, still watching him intently. "One is the constable from Mallory, and the other is a detective."
There was a slight hardening of his face, and she fancied that she saw his under lip quiver for a moment. Had he shown any guilty fear, had he shrunk back, or uttered a single moan, her sympathy would never have been aroused. But as it was, she was a woman, and her face softened, and the tears stood in her eyes. There was something almost grand in the composure with which he was waiting for what seemed inevitable—something of the magnificent resignation with which the noblemen of France one by one took their place at the block, and the simile was heightened by the slightly contemptuous, slightly defiant poise of his finely shaped head. She saw him cast one lingering glance around at the still sea, with its far-off motionless sails; at the clear sky, from which the brilliancy of coloring was fading away, and at the long sweep of moorland with its brilliant patches of heather and gorse, now slightly blurred by the mists rising from the earth. It was as though he were saying a last farewell to things which he had loved, and which he would see no more—and it had a strange effect upon her. The memory of that hideous crime left her. She could think only of the abstract pathos of the present situation, and she felt very miserable. It was wrong, unnatural of her; but at that moment, if she could have helped him to escape, she would have done her best in the face of them all.
They were almost at hand now, and she lifted her eyes, in which the tears were fast gathering. She thought nothing of her own situation—of their finding her alone with the murderer. With characteristic unselfishness she thought only of him.
She met her father's surprised gaze with indifference. She had a sort of feeling that nothing mattered much. What was going to happen eclipsed everything else.
And so it did. Her apathy changed in a moment to amazement, and her heart stood still. Her father had raised his hat to Mr. Brown with even more than the usual courtesy of his salute, and the two officials had saluted in the most correct fashion.
"Mr. Brown," he said, "we have all come in search of you to tender our most sincere apologies for an unfortunate mistake. Police Constable Chopping here is mostly to blame, and next to him, I am."
She glanced at the man by her side. His face was absolutely impenetrable. It showed no signs of the relief which was creeping into hers. His composure was simply wonderful.
"The fact is," her father continued, "Chopping came to see me with a long tale and a certain request which, under the circumstances—which I will explain to you afterwards—I could not as a magistrate refuse. I was compelled to sign a search warrant for him to go over Falcon's Nest. It was against my inclination, and a most unpleasant duty for me to perform. But I considered it my duty, and I attended there myself in order that it might not be abused. I hope to have your forgiveness for the liberty which we were compelled to take."
There was still no change in Mr. Brown's face, but, standing close to him, she heard him take a quick deep breath. Curiously enough, it was a relief to her to hear it. Such great self-restraint was almost unnatural.
"You only did your duty, Mr. Thurwell," he answered quietly. "You owe me no apology."
"I am very glad that you see it in that light," Mr. Thurwell said, "very glad indeed. But I have a further confession to make."
He drew Mr. Brown a little on one side, out of hearing of the others, but nearer to her than any of them, and commenced talking earnestly to him. This time she could tell that he was disturbed and uneasy, but she could not follow connectedly all her father said. Only a few stray words reached her.
"Very sorry indeed.... Quite accidental.... Will preserve ... discovery."
"Then I may rely upon you to keep this absolutely to yourself?" she heard Mr. Brown say earnestly.
"I give you my word, sir!" her father answered. Then they turned round, and she saw that Mr. Brown looked distinctly annoyed.
"However did you come here, Helen?" her father asked, suddenly remembering her presence.
"I came for a walk, and met Mr. Brown in the plantation," she explained.
"Well, since you are here," he remarked good humoredly, "you must help me to induce Mr. Brown to come back to the Court. So far, we have been wretched neighbors. We shall insist upon his dining with us, just to show that there's no ill-feeling," he added, smiling. "Now, no excuses."
"Thank you, but I never go out," Mr. Brown answered. "I have not even any clothes here. So——"
"Please come, Mr. Brown," she said softly.
He flashed a sudden glance at her from his dark eyes, which brought the color streaming into her cheeks. Fortunately, twilight was commencing to fall, and she was standing a little back in the shadow of the plantation.
"If Miss Thurwell wishes it," he said, in a tone of a man who offers himself to lead a forlorn hope, "it is settled. I will come."
MR. BROWN DINES AT THE COURT
Both to him and to her there was something strangely unreal in the little banquet to which they three—Mr. Thurwell, his daughter, and his tenant—sat down that evening. For many months afterwards, until, indeed, after the culmination of the tragedy in which she was the principal moving figure, Helen Thurwell looked back upon that night with strangely mingled feelings. It was the dawn of a new era in her existence, a fact which she never doubted, although she struggled vainly against it. And to him it was like a sudden transition into fairyland. The long years of lonely life and rigorous asceticism through which he had passed had been a period of no ordinary self-denial. Instinctively and with his whole nature the man was an artist. His homely fare, ill-cooked and ill-served among dreary surroundings, had for long been a horror to him. Whatever his reasons for such absolute isolation had been, they had sprung from no actual delight in rough living or non-appreciation of the refinements of civilized society. He realized to the full extent the sybaritic pleasures which now surrounded him. The white tablecloth flaming with daintily modeled plate and cut glass, the brilliant coloring of the scarlet and yellow flowers, the aromatic perfume of the chrysanthemums mingling with the faint scent of exotics, the luscious fruits, and the softly shaded table lights which threw a rich glow over the lovely face opposite to him—all these things had their own peculiar effect in the shape of a certain subtle exhilaration which was not slow to show itself. With scarcely an effort he threw off the old mask of reserve, with all the little awkwardnesses and gaucheries which it had entailed, and appeared as the shadow of the self of former days—a cultured, polished man of the world. Even Mr. Thurwell's good breeding was scarcely sufficient to conceal his surprise at the metamorphosis. Never before, at his table, had there been such a brilliant flow of conversation—conversation which had all the rare art of appearing general, whereas it was indeed nothing less than a monologue on the part of this strange guest. He had traveled far, he had seen great things in many countries, and he had known great men; and he talked lightly about them all, with the keen appreciation of the artist, and the graceful diction of the scholar. He was a man who had lived in the world—every little action and turn of speech denoted it. The French dishes—Mr. Thurwell was proud of his chef—were no secret to him, and he knew all about the vintages of the wines he was drinking. In the whole course of his experience, Mr. Thurwell had never entertained such a guest as this, and it was a sore trial to his good manners to abstain from any astonished comment on the lonely life his tenant had been lately leading.
And Helen sat listening to it all with a sort of dreamy content stealing over her, out of which she was stirred every now and then into enthusiasm by some brilliant criticism or fresh turn to the conversation. At such times her gray luminous eyes, with their strange dash of foreign color, would light up and flash their sympathetic approval across the few feet of tablecloth blazing with many-colored flowers and fruits and glittering silver. And he grew to look for this, and to receive it with an answering glance from his own dark eyes, full of a strange light and power. She, watching him more keenly than her father could, was conscious of something that altogether escaped him, a sort of undercurrent of suppressed excitement which never rose to the surface, and revealed itself in none of his mannerisms or his tone. But it was there, and she felt it—felt it more than ever when their eyes met, and hers were forced to droop before the steady fire in his, which more than once brought the faint color into her cheeks, and sent a new sensation quivering through her being.
Dinner came to an end at last, but when she rose to go her father protested. She generally sat with him while he smoked a cigarette and drank his coffee. Why should she go away now? They were making no stranger of Mr. Brown. And so she stayed.
Presently she found herself strolling round the room by his side, showing him the pictures which hung lightly upon the high oak panels, and the foreign bric-a-brac and Italian vases ranged along the wide black ledge a little below. Her father had been obliged to go out and speak to the head gamekeeper about some suspected poaching, and they were alone.
"This is where I like to sit after dinner, when we are alone," she said; and, lifting some heavy drooping curtains, she led him into a quaint recess, almost as large as an ordinary room. A shaded lamp was burning on a small Burmese table, and the faint fragrance of burning pine logs stole up from the open hearth and floated about on the air, already slightly perfumed with the odor of chrysanthemums clustered together in quaint blue china bowls, little patches of gold-and-white coloring, where everything else was somber and subdued. She sank into a low basket chair before the fire, and, obeying her gesture, he seated himself opposite to her.
"Now, talk to me, please," she said, half hiding her face with a feather screen to protect it from the fire. "No commonplacisms, mind! I have heard nothing else all my life, and I am weary of them. And, first, please to light a cigarette. You will find some in the silver box by your side. I like the perfume."
He did as he was bidden in silence. For a moment he watched the faint blue smoke curl upward, stole a glance around him, and drew a long breath as though he were drinking in to the full the artistic content of the exquisite harmony and coloring, of his surroundings. Then he threw a sudden, swift look upon the beautiful girl who was leaning back in her low chair, with her fair head resting upon a cushion of deep olive green, and her eyes fixed expectantly upon him. She was so near that, by stretching out his hand, he could have seized her small shapely fingers; so near, that he could even detect the delicate scent of lavender from the lace of her black dinner gown. He took in every detail of her dainty toilette from the single diamond which sparkled in the black velvet around her throat, to the exquisitely slippered feet resting lightly upon a tiny sage-green footstool, and just visible through the gossamerlike draperies which bordered her skirts. In the world of her sex she had become an era to him.
THE TRAGEDY OF RACHEL KYNASTON.
"I wonder whether you know that we have met before, Miss Thurwell?" he asked her suddenly.
She moved her screen and looked at him.
"Surely not! Where?"
In a few words he reminded her of that quaint street in the old Italian town, and of the half-ruined Palazzo di Vechi. He had seen her only for a few minutes, but her face had never been forgotten; the way in which he told her so, although he did not dwell upon it, told her also that it had been no ordinary memory—that it had held a separate place in his thoughts, as was indeed the case. Something in the manner of his allusion to it showed her too, as though he had laid his whole mind bare, with what interest, almost reverence, he had guarded it, and all that it had meant to him; and as she listened a faint color stole into her cheeks, with which the fire had nothing to do. She held her screen the closer, and bent her head lest he should see it.
But there was no fear of that; indeed, he had no thought of the kind. Leaving the dangerous ground behind him, he glided easily and naturally into impersonal subjects. From Italy he began to talk of Florence, of Pico della Mirandola, and the painters of the Renaissance. He strove his utmost to interest her, and with his vast stock of acquired knowledge, and his wonderfully artistic felicity of expression, he talked on and on, wandering from country to country, and age to age, till it all seemed to her like a strangely beautiful poem, full of yellow light and gleaming shadow, sometimes passionate and intense, at others fantastic and almost ethereal. Now and then she half closed her eyes, and his words, and their meaning, the form and the substance, seemed to come to her like richly blended music, stirring all her senses and quickening all her dormant faculties. Then she opened them again, and looked steadily upon the dark, wan face, with its sharp thin outline and strange poetic abstraction. By chance he spoke for a moment of De Quincey, and a shudder passed through all her being. Could such a face as that be a murderer's face? The utter morbidness of such a thought oppressed her only for a moment. If to-morrow it was to be her duty to loathe this man, then it should be so; but those few minutes were too precious to be disturbed by such thoughts. A new life was stirring within her, and its first breath was too sweet to be crushed on the threshold. After to-night—anything! But to-night she would have for her own.
And so the time passed on, and the evening slipped away. Mr. Thurwell had looked in, but seeing them so engrossed he had quietly retreated and indulged in his usual nap. A dainty tea equipage had been brought in, and she had roused herself to prepare it with her own hands, and it seemed to him that this little touch of domesticity had been the one thing wanted to make the picture perfect. There had been a momentary silence then, and she had found herself asking him questions.
"Do you never feel that you would like to be back in the world again?" she asked. "Yours is a very lonely life!"
"I do not often find it so," he answered, with his eyes fixed upon the fire. "One's books, and the thoughts one gets from them, are sufficient companions."
"But they are not human ones, and man is human. Do you think a lonely life quite healthy—mentally healthy, I mean?"
"It should be the healthiest of all lives. It is only in theory that solitude is morbid. If you knew more of the world, Miss Thurwell, you would understand something of its cramping influence upon all independent thought. I am not a pessimist—at least, I try not to be. I do not wish to say that there is more badness than goodness in the world, but there is certainly more littleness than greatness. To live in any manner of society without imbibing a certain form of selfishness is difficult; to do so and to taste the full sweetness of the life that never dies is impossible!"
"But there must be some exceptions!" she said hesitatingly. "If people care for one another, and care for the same things——"
He shook his head.
"People never do care for one another. Life is so full nowadays, there are so many things to care about, that any concentration of the affections is impossible. Love is the derision of the modern world. It has not even the respect one pays to the antique."
For several minutes there was deep silence. A piece of burning wood tumbled off from the log and fell upon the tiles, where it lay with its delicate blue smoke curling upward into the room, laden with the pungent odor of the pine. She moved her feet, and there was the slight rustling of her skirts. No other sound broke the stillness which they both remembered for long afterwards—the stillness before the storm.