Title: The Silent Woman Author: Rita (aka Eliza Margaret Jane Humphreys and Mrs W. Desmond Humphreys) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: .html Language: English Date first posted: July 2018 Most recent update: July 2018 This eBook was produced by: Maurie and Lyn Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
Rain poured in a soft grey stream over a dreary stretch of moorland in one of the dreariest spots in the Peak country. Some of the heights were capped by low-drooping clouds, others showed a sharp and sudden outline against the prey sky. The whole aspect was dreary in the extreme. A wide treeless space of grey and brown; mile upon mile of uncultured land, with no sign of human habitation. A world-forgotten nook in a spot that spelt desolation.
A traveller who had climbed one height only to find it meant climbing another, who had perseveringly faced rain and mist in the hopes of finding some reward for such perseverance, stood now in the heart of a small valley and gave vent to his feelings in a prolonged groan.
"If it would only end; if it would only lead to somewhere!" he cried, despairingly, as the mist swooped down once more from cloud-capped heights.
As if in answer to the exclamation came the low, piteous bleating of a sheep. He started and looked round, but there was no sign of the animal. Still it gave notice of some living creature besides himself, and meant human ownership, even of a straying piece of foolishness. Following the direction of the sound he came upon a shivering group huddled into a corner of broken rocks. They regarded him with forlorn eyes, and his friendly greeting only occasioned alarm. He wondered if they were lost, like himself, and whether a possible owner would be coming in search of them?
The hour was near to sunset; the prospect of spending a night in such a spot was anything but inviting.
His clothes were soaked; his boots proclaimed diversions in mire and bog. His felt hat hung limp and shapeless over a face tanned and healthy and young. A face expressive of endurance and good looks, and inclined to laughter even under such disadvantages as the present moment afforded. He perched himself on a fragment of the broken rocks and summed up the situation in a few words.
"Well! To cross the Atlantic in search of a lost heritage and find oneself astray in a Derbyshire valley! Rufus Myrthe, you're no better than these stupid bleaters. Suppose you follow their tracks for a bit. Maybe there's a farm hereabouts, bad as the land looks."
His eyes, grey and keenly bright, swept the landscape carefully. Then he rose and, with hands hollowed trumpet fashion, gave vent to a loud "Hullo-o-o!" The sheep, startled at the sound, scampered wildly from their shelter, and burst into a chorus of bleats. As answering response to their frantic cries there sounded from afar the barking of a dog.
"Ah, that's done the trick, has it? All right, sonny, you come along this way and show us what jackasses we've been."
He whistled loud and clear until the dog came in sight, and watched him collect and head the sheep with cheerful encouragement. Then he followed in their wake, putting fatigue aside as a matter for future consideration. A long and heavy tramp still lay before him. There was no road; nothing but a narrow, zig-zag track scarcely discernible in the autumn mist. They left the valley, and ascended another of those steep peaks that shut it in on every side. A brief gleam of sunshine struggled through the mists, and for a moment lit up the desolate scene. It showed a low stone building some distance ahead. It was sheltered by a hill sparsely-clad with larch and firs; a few fields of grazing land surrounded it on either side. Some outbuildings, grey-roofed and grey-stone like the house, stood near it. Very dreary, very lonely, very ugly it looked. Yet to Rufus Myrthe it was welcome as spring sunshine, for it told of rest and food at last. His steps quickened involuntarily, and soon he was near enough to observe the building more closely. He saw then that it was no farmhouse, as he had supposed, but an Inn. An old weather-beaten sign swung before the stone porch which was built out in a square from the wooden doorway. Tired and hungry as he was, the young man took a survey of the queer old sign before entering the little hostelry. A strange enough sign it was. Rudely painted on the swinging board was the figure of a Headless Woman.
Notice as to license and refreshment had long since been obliterated by wind and weather. There was nothing now to indicate the name of the Inn or the name of its owner. It stood alone on that lonely height. No other cottage or farm was in sight as far as eye might travel.
A weird, uncanny place, with a weird, uncanny sign. So it breasted the great sweep of barren moorland, and faced the loneliness of the towering peaks.
The sharp barking of the dog had brought out someone from the house; a girl, who stood in the stone porch and gazed curiously at the absorbed stranger who was studying the sign.
He became aware of her presence at last and advanced. "I've lost my way," he explained, going straight to the point in the direct fashion he had acquired 'out West.' "I'm glad to find an Inn in such an unlikely spot. I guess I can have a room here, and some food. I'm nigh on starved. It's all of ten hours since I've had a meal, and if it hadn't been for your dog I reckon 'twould have been twenty. But what's the matter? You don't seem in an amazing hurry to welcome a customer. This is an Inn, I s'pose?"
"It ha' used to be," said the girl slowly. "It ha' gotten a bad name late years. No one comes nigh us nowadays."
"That so?" queried the young man briskly. "Happen I'll wake you up then, my lass. Can I have a bed and supper, as I said before?"
She left the porch, and came out. He saw she was very young, scarce past girlhood, but of a beauty brilliant and redundant beyond her apparent years. Tall, full-figured, supple, she stood before him, the faint sunlight lingering on her red gold hair, lighting up the vivid tints of cream and white and rose that made a complexion and skin for a goddess.
Silently he regarded her; wonder and admiration in his eyes as they met and lost themselves in the blue depth of hers. She returned the gaze calmly and indifferently. Men were unimportant factors in her life as yet; though a man like this stranger was worthy of some interest and attention.
"I dunno," she said slowly, answering his question at last. "Beds there's none and vittals scarce eno'. Still he can't send 'ee away, surely."
She spoke in the soft, sleepy tongue of the Peak, and, to the stranger, used to Transatlantic drawl and nasal twang, both voice and accent seemed charming.
"He—who's he?" he asked, quickly.
"Feyther," she replied. "Best you go in and ask for a drop to wet your throttle. M'appen he'll let you bide then. It's few eno' customers as comes this way e'en summer time."
"So I'd imagine," laughed the young fellow cheerfully. "Sort of lost continent I'd call it. I wish you'd come in and introduce me though. Perhaps you could soften matters a bit, since your father doesn't seem quite so set on hospitality as most of his class."
She looked inquiringly at his laughing face, not half comprehending his words, then shook her head and moved away.
"I mun see to th' sheep," she said. "They've strayed to-day, like the foolish things they be. Get ye' in, as I told 'ee."
Rufus Myrthe followed her advice and entered the porch. It led straight into the bar, but no one was there. Neither were there any signs of such specialities as usually attend on that institution. The young man knocked two or three times before receiving any notice of his presence. Then a surly voice demanded his business. He replied soothingly; he had no desire to travel further that night.
As he finished speaking, a figure advanced from a room beyond, and the young man found himself confronting as ill-favoured a visage as had ever been his lot to behold. Coarseness and surliness were its distinguishing traits. He surveyed the stranger with ill-tempered curiosity.
"Lost yersel'," he repeated. "What brings ye to these parts then?"
"Business," answered the young traveller. "I'm searching for a family history, lost somewhere in these Derbyshire wilds. But to the point, friend. No man's likely to enter a place like this unless he wants something. I want a bed for the night, and some food. I'll pay you well. Say—is it done?"
"We've no beds."
"All right. Floor and a blanket'll suit. I'm used to roughing it."
"We don't take in travellers, I tell 'ee."
"What's your sign for, then? Why the—Statue of Washington—do you call this an Inn if it's not to serve the purpose of an Inn? Anyhow, I'm going to stay, so make your mind easy. And first I'll take a drop of whisky neat, for I'm wet to the skin."
"S'pose I ha' no mind to sell?"
"Shucks," exclaimed the traveller, sharply. "You don't look like too much of a millionaire anyway. Here!"
He tossed some silver down on the counter, as the argument he had found most useful in dealing with men and things in general. It answered on this occasion. The inn-keeper took out a bottle from a cupboard behind the bar, and set it down before his customer.
"Ah! I guess we're coming to business. What about a glass, though?"
The man handed him an old pewter measure, and without more ado the young fellow half-filled it with the spirit and drank it off.
"There!" he said, as he set down the measure with a bang. "I guess that ought to keep out rheumatism right enough. Now about accommodation, friend. Surely, you can give me a shake-down for the night. There seems room and to spare here. You're not over-burdened with customers, eh! business slack, isn't that about the way of it?"
"Bain't none hereabouts," said the surly man.
"So I should confidently surmise. The question in my mind is why stay in such a God-forsaken hole?"
"I han't got no choice. I've allays lived here. Bide there till I can see what I can do for 'ee."
He retired to the room from whence he had issued, and the young man heard him calling for someone in his deep, surly tones.
"Moll," rang the cry. "Moll——"
"What is't?" came back the answer.
The voices joined, and sank to murmurings, and presently the man returned.
"Th' lass says she can fix ye up summat," he announced. "Meanwhile ye can step into th' kitchen and warm yersel'."
The young fellow needed no second invitation to do that. He was wet and tired and footsore, and the thought of food and fire was very welcome.
He followed his surly host and found himself in a small but clean kitchen, where a bright fire of peat and wood was burning on the open hearth. It threw its warm glow over wooden table and chairs, on delft and pewter, and also on an old oak settle, set sideways by the deep stone fireplace.
A woman sat there, stiff and erect; her hands clasped on her lap, her white hair covered with a white cap, her eyes fixed on the fire. The young man took off his soaked hat and wished her good evening. She remained in the same attitude. Neither look nor movement betrayed that she had heard him.
"Dunn' thee trouble thysel' about her," observed his host. "Deaf she be as ony log; and stiff o' the jints wi' rheumitiz. Tak' a chair and warm thysel' till Moll can get 'ee a bit o' supper."
He threw on some furze. The peat turned up brightly. There was no other light in the place. Then he went away, and Rufus Myrthe took the ricketty old chair and sat down by the welcome blaze.
From time to time he gazed curiously at the silent figure on the settle. Had it been carved out of wood or stone it could not have been more silent, more motionless. The white face, the white hair, the white cap, threw up into stronger contrast the black dress and the stiff erect figure. The young man looked and looked and looked again, watching for some sign of life, some notice of his presence. None came. The woman might have been dumb as well as deaf, blind as well as speechless, for any sign of consciousness she gave.
As the blaze died into a dull red glow, and the outer darkness curtained the one small window, there seemed something uncanny in the surroundings of this place.
Nerves and fear were things unknown to Rufus Myrthe, but he had to confess to a feeling of uncomfortableness as the moments passed, ticked out by an old grandfather's clock in a corner near the door. The silence grew ominous. To sit there beside a piece of human still life was an ordeal to one so full of vitality and energy as himself. He coughed and fidgeted in vain. Not even the flicker of an eyelid betrayed that the woman was aware of his presence. The steam from his damp clothes spread like a mist through the space between them. It made the figure indistinct and ghostly; it seemed to fill the place with eerie shadows and intensify such slight sounds as emphasised the stillness. The moments seemed like hours, as he sat on waiting for some sign from that motionless form, or some sound from the other inmates of this strange Inn. He thought how very strange it was in situation, in ownership, in name.
Name? He started suddenly. The swinging signboard flashed before his wondering eyes.
The significance of the odd title was manifested as abruptly as the thought that had given it birth. Outside—exposed to the mercy of the mist and rain and moorland storm, swung that strange figure of the Silent Woman. Here, within, seated by the hearth, that to her conveyed no warmth, no glow of human life, was its human counterpart. If the one had no head, the other had no tongue; both alike seemed dumb, blind, lifeless.
He started to his feet, and, bending down, stirred the glowing embers to a fitful blaze. He felt as if the place had grown impossible. What mystery surrounded it? What tragic fate had condemned their weird creature to such a life—to such a home? He strode to her side and laid a hand upon her shoulder and shook her roughly.
"For 'eaven's sake, if you can't speak, look at me! Give me some sign you're alive!" he exclaimed impulsively.
She raised her eyes to his face then, and as she did so his hand fell, and he recoiled a step.
So wild, so sad, so haunting, was that glance, that it seemed to him all the anguish of sorrow, of terror, the secret horror of a poisoned soul, spoke out for one brief moment.
Then the lids fell again. The white face resumed its marble composure; the folded hands lay without tremor on the black stiff gown.
She was once again the Silent Woman.
The kitchen door opened abruptly, and the girl he had seen in the porch entered, carrying a lamp in her hand. She was a welcome sight to Rufus Myrthe.
"I'm glad to see you, lass!" he exclaimed. "I guess it's a bit lonesome here. That lady in the chimney-corner's not exactly a powerful conversationalist. What about a room, eh? Your father as good as promised you'd find me one. I've got a dry change in my satchel and I shouldn't object to getting inside of it."
She went to a cupboard and took out a candlestick. "If you follow me," she said, "I'll show 'ee the place. M'appen ye're not particular for a night. There's a power o' things as ye ha' gotten to do wi'out. Not a soul bides wi' us year's end to year's end."
"Oh, you won't find me particular," he said, cheerily, as he watched her bend to the flame, and light the candle. She addressed no word to the silent figure on the settee, but, making a sign to the young man, led him across a stone passage, and up a narrow staircase, dark and musty and smelling of damp. They came to a landing, running the length of the upper part of the house, and on which three doors opened. The girl unlatched one of them, and he followed her in. The floor was bare but clean. A small iron bedstead stood against the wall, covered with a patchwork quilt. A chair, a deal table, on which stood a ricketty glass, and another, containing a basin and jug to serve as a washstand, were all the furniture it contained; but a fire had been lit in the small iron grate, and the cheerful blaze of spluttering logs threw a welcome glow around the bare and homely place.
"Why, this is grand!" exclaimed the young fellow, delightedly. "Your father said you had no room for travellers. Why was that?"
"M'appen he didn't want ye to stay. I'd hard work to persuade him. I'll be getin' 'ee supper now. There's nought but porridge and a bit o' biled bacon."
"I'm too hungry to grumble at anything, so long as its food," said Rufus, and, being left to himself, straightway unstrapped the satchel from his shoulder, took out a few necessaries, and then hung his damp coat before the fire to dry. Warmed and comfortable once more, his wet, miry boots replaced by felt slippers, he piled on another log, and then left the room in search of the much-needed food.
He found the table laid in the kitchen. A bowl of smoking potatoes, another of stir-about, and a large piece of fat bacon, were flanked by a coarse meal loaf. The surly landlord was already seated. Moll pointed to a chair for their guest, and seated herself opposite. Involuntarily the young man glanced at the settee. The figure was still there. Before her was placed a small wooden table, on which stood a bowl of porridge and a cup of milk. Gratified by such a sign of humanity as the ability to partake of food, Rufus Myrthe fell to work on his own supper, giving out between whiles such information as to his history and his reasons for visiting the Peak country as might be of interest to his host. This was his story.
Fifty years ago, or thereabouts, a family named Marth, or Myrthe, had left a certain district in the Peak country and emigrated to America. The head of that family was married to a woman who owned a farm and some land. It was poor ground, and life meant a struggle, and she was glad enough to leave the country, taking with her her three children; a son of eighteen, and two daughters. Before leaving she gave the farm in charge to her brother. He was unmarried, and he promised to look after the place and send her money if ever there was any to be made out of it. From the day she left till the day she died never a word reached her. Her husband, meantime, prospered, and grew almost a wealthy man. The son married a Kentucky farmer's daughter. Rufus was their only child. When the grandmother died, she left a will telling of this place in England, and leaving it to her eldest grandson. Rufus was but a boy then, and his father never troubled much about things in the old country, though he would talk of the will, and chaff and joke about his son's "heirship."
"We were prosperous folk," continued Rufus, "and I, being by nature inclined to roving, tried my hands at all sorts of things. Trapping, hunting buffalo, fighting Indians, didn't seem to settle down nohow. I'm not two-and-twenty yet; but I guess I've seen and done things as would make your hair stand on end. Well, one day I took it into my head to come over to England and look up my property. I wrote and asked father whereabouts it lay. He said it was away down in a county called Derbyshire, but he'd mislaid the documents and couldn't quite call to mind just the spot where the property was located. However, as the whole county didn't seem to cover more ground than a good-sized ranch out West, I'd have no difficulty in finding it."
He paused here, and drank off a tumbler of whisky and water that the landlord proffered.
"To continue my story," he said, putting down the glass, "I've been just on two weeks tramping this said 'county.' We don't use such names where I come from, nor split our cleared land up into scraps that fit like a child's puzzle map. Well, the queer thing is that this farm's nowhere to be found. Clean disappeared, as if an earthquake had taken a fancy to it!"
He paused, and looked from the landlord's surly face to Moll's rose and white one.
"Clean disappeared!" he said slowly. "No such name seems known anywhere round from Stafford boundary to Kinder Scout. Fifty years is a fairish space of time, I reckon; enough to live in, die in, and be forgotten in. Still, it's kind o' queer that neither farm nor owner have left any tracks. You don't happen to know of any place twenty miles north, south, east, or west of this Peak district called the Marth Farm, I suppose?"
The man shook his head slowly. "Na," he drawled. "Niver heerd on't—to my knowledge."
"It's a bit surprising," said the young fellow thoughtfully. "Land and house and family don't usually disappear without some trace, generally speaking. But if this farm had been picked up and dropped straight into the sea, it couldn't have been lost more completely."
He pushed aside his plate, and the girl rose and began to collect the supper things to put them aside to wash. The young man moved his chair out of her way, and by doing so faced half-way to the settle. The Silent Woman was looking straight at him. Her eyes eager, wondering, full of question. He was so amazed that he remained staring at her, but her lids fell swiftly as a dropped curtain; the cold, impassive face took back its coldness and impassibility once more. So swift was the transformation that he felt half afraid his imagination was playing tricks with him. His host's voice broke the momentary silence. He was lighting his pipe, and asking the young man to follow his example. Nothing loth, Rufus produced a well-coloured briarwood and tobacco pouch. The two men drew up their chairs to the wide old chimney-place, and began to smoke. Moll went on washing the plates and bowls. The old sheep dog crept in and lay down beside the silent figure on the settle. Still silent, still motionless, she sat on; the lowered eyes always on the fire, the clasped hands, white and cold as stone, lying on the black folds of her gown.
"Your wife, I suppose?" said Rufus Myrthe, at last, curiosity getting the better of natural politeness.
The surly man nodded.
"Has she—I mean, is she always like this?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"Allus," said the man. "Don't 'ee take ony count o' it. She's struck."
"Struck!" echoed the young fellow wonderingly. "Do you mean paralysed?"
The surly man lifted his cold blue eyes from the glowing peat.
"I dunno," he said huskily. "It's a matter of ten year or so since she's spoke a word."
"Perhaps some grief or shock?" hazarded the young man, "I've heard of such things. Has she seen a doctor?"
"Doctor—no. I don't hold wi' doctors and their meddlin' ways and poison stuffs. She's had th' ould herb woman, but she couldn't do naught. 'Let her bide tew hersel',' was all her could say. She sleeps right eno' and takes her vittals, and bain't no trouble to Moll or I. We're used to her now."
"Moll is your daughter's name?"
"Rather a lonely life for her in such a desolate place as this?"
"I dunno as she thinks on't. There's work eno' for one pair o' hands, and time's short whin wark's to dew."
"I suppose you get more custom in the summer time?"
"Custom and this place doan't shake hands too often," said the man. "Nearest town is fifteen mile. Winter time, when snow do fall, we ha' to bide to oursels; not a sowl comes nigh to ha' a crack from Candlemas to St. Mark's Eve."
"If you get no custom, how do you manage to live?"
"That's more my bizness than yourn, I suppose," was the ungracious retort.
"Oh—ha, of course. I beg your pardon. I was naturally curious——"
He broke off abruptly, and again his eyes turned to the supple figure in its rough home-spun gown. The girl had put away the dishes and plates, and now drew out a spinning wheel and began to spin. To Rufus Myrthe the work and the wheel possessed the classic charm of ancient history. He had only read of them, never seen them. He smoked on in silence; his surly companion made no attempt to break it.
It was a strange scene; and one destined to play a part in his memory in years to come. The silent figure in its place on the ancient settle; the grim and forbidding face of the owner of the Inn; the wonderful, vivid beauty of the girl who spun her yarn and plied her distaff. And strangest of all to Rufus Myrthe was the fact of his own presence here—his own association with so incongruous a trio, as this family represented.
A whim had brought him to these wilds. Chance had led him to this Inn. But he was master of his actions. He could leave on the morrow did he wish. But this girl, this strangely beautiful product of nature set in these wild solitudes, what must life mean to her? What would it bring in the future? How could anything so beautiful have sprung from a pair so ill-mated and ill-favoured. He puzzled and wondered and surmised until his brain grew weary, and his tired eyes began to droop drowsily.
"I think I'll go to bed now," he said abruptly. "So good-night to you all."
"Ye'll be wantin' some breakfast, maybe?" observed his host.
"I shall so. Are you very early birds here?"
"Daybreak mostly finds us about. But there's no need for 'ee to stir theesel' so early. Moll here 'ull gie 'ye some vittals when ye want. Ye'll be away on yer travels betimes I daresay?"
"Yes. I have to make inquiries round about, as I told you."
"M'appen that land has changed owners. Things dew git like that i' course o' years."
"Perhaps," said Rufus Myrthe. "But I mean to try and get to the bottom of the mystery, if I can."
His eyes were on the gleaming hair of the girl at her spinning wheel. He did not see the quick glance, surprise and terror commingled, flashed at him from that motionless figure on the settle.
He did not see how the frozen calm of that strange face was broken up by the touch of sudden fear.
The sun was shining brightly through the small square window of his room when Rufus Myrthe awoke. He looked round the unfamiliar place with a drowsy bewilderment. His dreams had been strange; a troubled memory mingled with his waking thoughts.
He rose and made a hasty toilet, and then went down the steep, ladder-like stairs to the kitchen. It was tenantless, but a clean cloth was laid on one end of the table, and a cup and earthenware teapot, and a coarse loaf, were placed on it. He wondered if he was to make his own tea. To be sure of the fact he went to the door and looked out. It opened on a paved cobble-stone yard, where the sheep-dog lay basking in the sun. Further on some poultry were scattered about, or perched on the stone fence surrounding the alternate grass, moor, and bog-land that made up the inn-keeper's property. Even in the bright sunlight it looked scarcely less desolate than on the previous night. He saw the sheep grazing on the brown, level wastes, and marvelled what they could find to eat. A cow was tethered in a field beyond, and an antiquated horse kept it company. There was no sign of Moll or her father.
He was returning to the house, when a shambling step, crossing the yard, attracted his attention. He looked round and saw an old, bent, queerly-attired figure going towards one of the outhouses.
He called out and the man turned and surveyed him with evident curiosity. Then he came forward, with the shambling walk of age and labour. A ragged hat covered his scant grey locks with a generosity of size that might have been comfortable, but was certainly not becoming.
"Did 'ee call?" he inquired, and his wrinkled old visage spread into an active map of lines and creases.
"Yes, I did," he answered. "I couldn't see anyone about, and I want my breakfast. Where's the—the young woman who lives here?"
The ancient personage, whose years might have been anything from four score to a hundred, peered up at the stalwart figure of the young giant, and then seemed to lose himself in speculations, as to how much flesh and blood, and bone and muscle, went to the making up of so admirable a piece of manhood.
"Young 'ooman," he repeated huskily. "Do 'ee mean Moll?"
"Moll is her name, I reckon."
"Ay. A good wench, and can do a power o' wark. Dick's feyther to her. Dick o' th' Inn yonder."
"Yes, I know that. But I asked you where she was, not who. I want my breakfast."
"Canna ye git yer vittals yerself? It's main and helpless ye mun be, far all yer broad shoulders and yer hulkini' frame."
"Of course I can," said the young man, ignoring the frankness of the compliment. "But I wanted to know if I was expected to do it. I couldn't see a kettle anywhere about."
The old man gave vent to a rusty cackle, and shambled into the kitchen.
"What's theer?" he demanded, pointing to a pot swinging by a hook over the peat fire. "Water eno' to wet th' tea, seems to me. Not that I iver drink stuff o' that sort. Wimmin's lap, I calls it."
Rufus would have liked to explain that the water was not boiling, nor likely to do so, swinging there above the dull, red turf. But he wisely deemed that explanations would be useless, and piled on some loose furze and brushwood to make a flame. The old man cast a look round and, seeing no one, took a chair and watched the crackling blaze with evident satisfaction.
"Missus bain't down yet," he observed, presently, with a glance at the settee opposite. "A queer, silent female. Hears naught, they say; speaks naught, I knaw. She'll kim round same as she went. Kind er shock made a poor fule of her. But I mind her a bright and bonny lass eno' whin Dick o' the Inn brought her here."
Rufus Myrthe lifted off the pot and made his tea. Then sat down and cut substantial slices of bread, on which he spread the salt, home-made butter left beside the loaf.
"Been long in these parts?" he asked, presently.
"Ivir since I rimimber," announced the old man. "Farm lad, hay-trussin', sheep-herdin', ploughin', quarryin', what not. There's most nothin' 'ee can tell o' that old Luke Froggart can't turn his hand to. Times I've got a bit tired o' th' lonesome life and th' barren moorside, but a wholesome love o' dumb creatures kept me to 't. It dew seem wonderful how they gits to knaw one, and how one gits to knaw they. And 'tis a pleasant eno' life summer times."
"I can hardly believe that," said the young man, swallowing his second cup of tea at a gulp, and setting the cup down with regret at its limited holding capacity. "I never saw so dreary a place. Moor and bog and peak; peak and bog and moor! What induced any sane person to build an Inn in such a God-forsaken spot! And how anyone owning such a property as it represents can expect to make a living out of it puts the cap on the whole business. How does Dick, as you call him, make this pay? Darn me if I can see a red cent profit either in the Inn or the farm—if you call it a farm."
"I dunno nought 'bout profit," answered the old labourer. "Th' missus she brought a tidy sum wi' her, so I've heerd, and this place wasn't allus a Inn. 'Twas a farm till they tuk to diggin' for coal. Yo' can see th' ould shaft and th' old truck lines still. A power o' money was made on't while it lasted, so I heerd. I was away down to Castleton those times at wark i' th' big mine theer. Whin I come back th' old house had a sign swung afront o' it. Oncanny and ugly it war, but th' colliers and quarrymen for miles around 'ud come here o' Saturdays whin they'd got wages to spind. Thin, one day, something strange and gashly-like happint, and th' place got a bad name, and not a livin' soul 'ud come nigh it. But Dick, he kep it on; and I've never heerd o' his wantin' money."
"What was it that happened?" asked the young man curiously.
"I bain't agoin' to tell 'ee. I've had my orders, and I gits my livin' by 'beying thim. Dunna ye think more on't, young man. M'appen you're as well wi'out the knowledge. 'Tis a gory and blood-curdlin' tale, and they dew say as——"
"What be ye doin' here; idlin' yer time wi' gossip, Luke Froggart?" exclaimed a voice sharply.
At sound of it the old man rose to his feet and with a muttered "beg pardin" shambled off to the back premises.
Rufus Myrthe saw Moll standing in the doorway that led to the inner side of the house. On her arm leant the woman whose personality had so attracted him. The young man rose quickly and gave them greeting. He noted that the strange creature looked long and earnestly at him, but she made no sign of acknowledgment. The girl led her to her seat on the old oak settle, placed a stool stuffed with straw for her feet, and then approached the table.
"You see, I've helped myself to all I wanted," said the young man cheerily, "and now I am going to look round the place a bit. I've got to make inquiries all round the country, so I stop wherever I can get a bed for the night, and tramp all day, except Sundays, when I have a rest."
"It's nigh on Sunday," said the girl slowly.
"True. I never thought of that."
He glanced at her, and then at the silent figure by the fire. "I wonder if I might stop over to-morrow," he said hesitatingly. "Would your father object, do you think?"
"Like as not he'd niver notice, now you've once bided wi' un."
"Shall I risk it, then? I want to find out about that old coal mine. I know something about mines, and perhaps this one——"
He stopped speaking. A strange sound, half moan, half cry, struck across his words. He turned quickly. The girl sprang forward, uttering an exclamation of terror.
The woman was on her feet, swaying to and fro, her arms outstretched as if to ward off some threatened assault.
"Why, mother; what's come to 'ee!" cried Moll in alarm. She caught the falling figure in her strong young arms, and Rufus Myrthe, hastening to give assistance, helped to reseat her in the accustomed place.
Her face was livid, her brow and hands damp with sweat. She trembled from head to foot.
"Mother—mother! what's come to 'ee?" repeated the terrified girl, as she wiped the damp brow, and supported the helpless head against her warm young breast.
"I think she's fainting," exclaimed Rufus. "Where can I get water?"
"There's some in th' pitcher yonder," answered Moll, regarding the white face and the closed eyes with alarm.
He hastened to fetch the water, and sprinkled the face of the now unconscious woman and tried to force a little between the closed teeth.
Presently she drew a long, deep breath, and her eyes opened.
"Ah; she's coming round, I guess," said the young fellow cheerfully. "Wonder what made her go off like that?"
The expression of the uplifted eyes affected him uncomfortably. Their dumb agony was like the agony of a wounded animal; their beseeching prayer a wordless torture. It seemed as if her whole soul longed to pour itself out; to break the physical charm that held it bound to silence. So great, so terrible, was the longing, that suddenly her lips parted in a shriek—a shriek unlike any earthly sound it had been his lot to hear. Then came a babble of incoherent words; words that fell in pell-mell haste from a tripping tongue.
"Don't thee go!" she reiterated frantically. "Don't thee, don't thee, don't thee go to the mine!"
Moll recoiled in sheer fright at what seemed to her a miracle. That the long-sealed lips should open, the bound tongue find release, were facts terrifying and inexplicable.
"Dear Lord o' Heaven!" she muttered under her breath. "What do it mean? Her speech ha' come back!"
Rufus Myrthe felt instinctively that he looked upon death, as he supported that stricken figure.
Its dread seal was set upon marble brow and pulseless heart.
The girl's terrified entreaties received no answer. She appealed to him. "What shall we do? 'Tis another stroke, bain't it?"
"Better carry her up to her own room," suggested Rufus.
Moll led the way, half-supporting the lower limbs up the stairs. They laid her on the bed. Then the young man bade her loosen her mother's dress and chafe her hands, while he went to search for the owner of the Inn.
His loud shout won no response. Its repetition, however, brought into view the figure of old Luke Froggart.
Rufus Myrthe explained what had occurred, but learnt that there was no such thing as a doctor within limits of a two hours' drive, nor any woman in farm or household likely to render assistance save "th' old herb woman," as Luke called her.
"Could I have the horse and go and fetch her?" demanded Rufus.
"M'appen ye might, m'appen the maister 'ud rage at me for lettin' o' it out. Ye can plase yersel'. An' trap's lost a wheel sin last market day," he added, cheerfully.
"Never mind the trap. I'll ride the animal, if you'll put me in the way. What's the woman's name?"
"Dame Dottery we names her—ah, what's that a-callin' ye? Th' lass, sure as life."
Moll had appeared at the door, white and trembling.
"She don't speak nor move. She's stone cold. Oh, do 'ee come in and see! I'm that fearful!"
Her voice broke into the piteous sobbing of a child. The young man hastened up the stairs to where that stricken form lay stiffening in its last sleep.
"I fear she's gone, child," he said, softly, as he looked at the rigid form and face.
"Gone!" echoed the girl. "Gone—where? How can she be gone whin she's lyin' there same as 'twas sleepin'."
He knew not what to say, and he dreaded feminine grief. "I'll go and fetch old Dame Dottery," he said at last, turning away from that stiff, set face with a thrill of awe. "You'd best find your father, my lass. I couldn't make him hear when I called just now."
"He's gone to Distly i' th' Dale," said the girl slowly. "I canna get to him. It's good of 'ee to fetch th' ould herb-woman. Moybe she can do summat. I've seed mother ill, but niver same as this."
He left the room without further word, and finding the old horse bridled and waiting, sprang on his back regardless of saddle, and rode away in the direction given by old Luke Froggart.
The animal moved at the pace of an average donkey, despite blows and persuasions, but at last Rufus Myrthe came in sight of the stone cottage in a hollow of the moor to which he had been directed.
A few cocks and hens scratched about near the doorway. Huge boulders of rock and gritstone lay about like remains of some feudal castle. A solitary ash tree, laden with scarlet berries, was the one thing that lent any colour or beauty to the surrounding dreariness. The door was closed, but a vigorous knocking with the stick he had used as a riding-whip brought an ancient crone to answer his summons.
"Are you Dame Dottery?" he asked, surveying a face and head that brought to mind the grey moss and lichen of an old apple tree, to which the gnarled and bent figure lent further resemblance.
"A' believe a' be," she made answer.
"You know the Inn yonder?" he went on, eagerly, "I'm staying there. This morning the woman—wife of the landlord, you know—was taken with a sort of fit. I'm afraid it's a stroke, or worse. I've come to fetch you. The girl's all alone and frightened. Will you come?"
He looked doubtfully at the shrunk, queer old figure, and marvelled how she was to traverse the miles of rough, uneven ground that lay between the hovel and the Inn.
"A'll come ower," she said, nodding her head with an emphasis that threatened dislocation between it and the withered, claw-like neck, at present it's only support. "Bide ye theer. M'appen ye cud strap a piller on th' hoss, an' lead un o'er the rough places wi' me a-top? 'Twould hasten things in a manner."
Rufus looked doubtful over the suggestion. Had the matter at issue not been so grave he could not have restrained his mirth, thinking how queer a burden would be perched on the back of the animal. However he bade the old dame bring him the "piller," and he would see what could be done. She appeared presently, having transformed herself into a bundle that seemed to have no beginning and no end. She handed him a pillow and a piece of rope as contributions to a side-saddle. Then he led the animal to one of the scattered boulders and helped this extraordinary female to mount. She accomplished the feat with an agility that spoke of custom, and amazed the young man no less than her own appearance had done.
On the journey over the moorside she informed him that she had been used to being fetched in this or other equally unorthodox fashion for sickness, "layings-in," or "layings-out," some two-score years. He tried to lead her to speak of the mistress of the Inn, but her stock of anecdotes and experiences invariably interfered with a direct narrative. This weakness, added to a catch of the breath at every jerk of the animal she bestrode, prevented her guide from gaining much information as to the mysterious dumb creature that had so aroused his curiosity. Vainly he had tried to keep the old crone's thoughts and memory on one line. Amidst the vagaries of dialect, and the rumblings of her brain, he gleaned little that he desired, and much that was strictly irrelevant. He gave up the task in despair at last, and contented himself with leading the stumbling animal and its burden as carefully as might be, so as to lessen any danger of her falling off—a danger to which she lent plentiful possibilities on every occasion that offered excuse. It was with a sigh of relief that Rufus, at last, beheld the Inn and piloted his charge into the yard.
Two hours had passed since he left, and he found the girl watching for them, pale and awe-struck.
He lifted the ancient equestrienne from her improvised saddle. Moll led her into the house. He waited below, after leading the horse to its stable. There was no sign of old Luke, or of the man he only knew as Dick o' th' Inn. Restless and uneasy, the young man roamed from without to within, and back again. The silence affected his nerve, and the suspense began to irritate a nature by no means patient. He stood at the foot of the ladder-like stairs and listened. A low murmur of voices reached his ear, but he could distinguish nothing clearly. Unable to control his impatience, he at last ventured up and knocked softly.
Moll opened the door. Her dry, bright eyes looked vaguely at his sympathising face.
"How—how is she?" he asked, knowing as he framed the words that they were empty of sense or meaning.
"Dead," said the girl, in a stiff, strange voice. "There's nought to be done—Dead!"
* * * * * * * *
Rufus Myrthe went slowly down the stairs and out once more into the yard. He found his acquaintance, Luke Froggart, astride of an old wooden stool, munching a slice of bread, to which a layer of fat bacon lent the semblance of a sandwich.
"Your mistress is dead," said the young fellow, abruptly.
"Eh, be that so?" He conveyed his interrupted meal to the palm of his hand, and took a survey of the surrounding landscape. "Dead!" he repeated. "Lord, di 'ee iver hear the like! A young woman, so to say. Seems but a matter o' weeks, lookin' back on't, since she came to th' ould place. A bonny creatur' too; well-favoured, as wimmin go hereabouts. 'Tis a bad affliction for the master and th' lass yonder. Not that th' puir soul was any manner o' use, so t' say. But 'tis better or worse wi' matrimony, and a man canna' go back o' that when he's made choice o' one wench out o' thim as offers."
He shook his head, philosophically and resumed his lunch.
"How long has she lived here?" asked Rufus.
"How long? If ye ban't particular in a matter o' months, I'd put it as twinty year come Candlemas. I mind I'd been turnip hoein' an harvistin' that year, and, then tuk up wi' shepherdin' afore lambin' time. A bad year it were, and th' ewes tuk it hard, an' we scarce saved a lamb i' six. Yes; she were a bonny eno' lass then, and nought amiss save a trifle o' wilfulness, and a bit tuk up wi' her pretty face, as was no wonder, whin ye saw the ugly mawthers o' gals as lived hereabouts."
"And what," asked Rufus, between another mouthful of refreshment. "What made her lose the power of speech like that?"
"O', that's more'n I can tell 'ee, lad. Suddin-like was the happerin' o't. None ivir got th' rights o' the story. There was a lad here 'long o' I, and a wumman to wark i' th' Inn, and Moll just a toddlin' bairn. We could na' hear the wharfor' o't. Doctor, he came from Distly i' th' Dale, twelve miles off, but he could do nawthing. Kind o' shock, he called it. Her husband, he didna' seem to tak on much about it. Went tew wark same as ivir; tended fair an' wakes, an' horse shows th' country round. Seemed as if money was allus to be gotten, spite o' bad land and worse trade. For few folk ivir come nigh th' Inn, and he didna' seem to want 'em."
"It was a farmhouse once, I heard."
"'Twas so; and whin maister hung up th' gashly ould sign o' that headless feymale, we thorht 'twas mad he war. But there 'tis. Th' Headless Woman wi'out, and th' Silent Woman wi'in, and no 'un wud give a brass farden for th' place now, save 'twas some strayed wayfarin' man, same as 'ee."
Silence again followed this information. The young fellow's eyes turned from point to point of the surrounding country before he put the question that he had put so often and so vainly.
"Do you happen to know of any farm hereabouts that went by the name of Myrthe or Marth? I'm searching for it, and haven't come across a trace as yet."
The old labourer finished his last mouthful and gave his customary deliberate "chaw" to the delicacy. Then he rose slowly and rustily, like a gate whose hinges need oiling.
"Dew I knaw the Marth Farm," he answered. "There bain't none o' it left. 'Twere dug up for coal a matter o' twinty year agone or more. Tunnelled an' dug up, an' messed about by a passel o' fools as called thesselves a Syndergate or summat. Ruined thesselves. 'Twas all wot come o't."
Rufus Myrthe stared. "But it wasn't their property. They had no right——"
"Reet or wrang, 'twas what they did. And arter two or three year they found 'twudn't wark. Yo' can see th' ould shaft and mouth o' pit yonder. Four mile, as the crow dew fly."
Rufus looked in the direction of the pointing finger. A natural indignation surged within his breast.
"Why, it was robbery! Rank robbery! How dared they. The property belonged to my grandmother. And she left it to me."
The old man's mouth took a curious twist. "Do 'ee say so? Well, now. If so be 'tis like that, ye'll ha' to reckon wi' th' maister. An' he be a rough 'un to handle, he be."
"Rough or not," burst out the young man, indignantly. "I reckon he'll find I'm not afraid of him! There's such a thing as law and justice in the land, and I'll teach him to meddle with other folk's property, as sure as my name's Rufus Myrthe."
"If it happen to be nought o' th' sort, what then?" demanded a surly voice just beside them.
The young fellow started. The master of the Inn was standing there; his teeth showing between his grizzled beard like those of a snarling dog.
Rufus swung round on him, his face aflame. "Oh, it's you, is it? You heard my story last night. You knew you had been the means of robbing me and supplanting me. Yet you held your tongue. You knew this land was mine—this house."
"Neyther one nor other be yours, young man. Call on law and justice as ye will, ye canna prove ony lawful right o' heritage. D'ye hear? Lawful right o' heritage. Try it, an ye will."
With such words of defiance the man walked into the inn.
Rufus remained staring after him in sheer astonishment. Then he made a hasty step, as if to follow, but remembering the tragedy that had recently happened, paused midway.
"I can't have a row in there, not with his dead wife lying above," he thought. "But what can the man mean? No right. No lawful right? It sounds queer. Am I going to dig up family secrets and family skeletons in my search? Well, this business has got to be settled, so that's all about it. This hulking reprobate needn't think I'm to be put off with a statement without proof!"
The ancient labourer meanwhile had shelved himself into a corner abutting on the stable. He had a wholesome fear of his master's temper, and was fearful lest he had been over-communicative to the stranger, and would suffer for it. Seeing that the young man was seemingly halting between two opinions, he hailed him with a quavering voice.
"Doan't 'ee go for to cross Maister Dick," he advised. "He be a terrible hard man; 'tis wonderful how he kin rage whin the mood's on him. I be goin' to see arter th' sheep, now Moll's taken up w' th' due settin' out of th' corpse yonder. Best 'ee come 'long o' I, an' if so be 'ee wants th' landmarks o' th' propitty, ther's ne'er a soul i' th' place can put 'ee up to 'un better nor ole Luk, as they calls me hereabouts."
He took up a stout ash stick as he spoke, and straightened his bent figure with a rusty jerk. Rufus Myrthe decided to accompany him for two reasons. One, to keep away from the chance of unseemly disturbance, supposing he again interviewed the master of the Inn—the other, a hope that he might glean some useful information from the ancient Methuselah who had sought his company. They went out of the yard-gate, and crossed the moor in an easterly direction, till it took a sudden dip, and landed them on a tract of grassland enclosed by a low stone fence. Here the few sheep belonging to the innkeeper were grazing, the old dog lying near in placid observance of their movements.
"Now, lad," said the old labourer, "dew 'ee see yonder shaft, broken an' topply, as if't had two minds to keep itsel' up ony longer? That's nigh to where the pit be; 'ee can see 't for yer sel'. Ten year or more ago 'twas warked, an' some sayed there war a fortin' in't; an' some 'twar just waste o' labour an' money. Onyways, it didna last long. Warks an m'shinery stopped suddin like. Th' vein o' coal war too pore t' wark, so I heerd tell. An' maister, he swore, an' war that mad as folks didna dare to go anigh th' place. He'd set up this Inn by then, un' all th' custom waar gone. Naugaht 'ud make him b'lieve that there warn't coal i' plenty, an' o' good quality, an' he'd fetch engineers an' sichlike, an' they'd be a-testin' an' a-pryin', an a-diggin' ground oop till th' place war like a bog winter times, but warn't no manner o' use. An' it lays now as it lay then an' as gotten a bad name to't. Ne'er a livin' soul, man, boy, or wumman, as 'ud go nigh wi'in a mile o't arter sundown. They dew say as how 'tis haunted. 'Tis a queer sort o' a tale that's bound up wi' that. A queer sort o' tale!"
He shook his head in a palsied fashion and twisted his mouth into a tight bundle of folds and wrinkles that seemed to insinuate that he could be as secret as he had been communicative, did he so determine. Rufus felt the stirrings of curiosity gaining strength. He plied the old gaffer with questions. A great deal depended on learning who had gained possession of the property at that time, and by what means. He foresaw a considerable amount of trouble threatened by this unexpected usurpation of rights, and remembered that he had brought no title deeds with him, nor documents of any sort that might prove his claims.
The old man, however, seemed reluctant to give any more information. His tongue had wagged freely up to a certain point—now it stopped obstinately.
All Rufus could gain was a hint that something terrible had occurred just about the time of closing the mine. Something no one in the surrounding districts dare speak of save with bated breath. Of its nature Rufus asked in vain. It had given the mine a bad name; it had struck the wife of Dick Udale into the dumb and piteous object he had seen; it had turned Dick Udale himself into the surly, ill-tempered, ill-spoken individual, for whom no one had a good word, and left the whole family as pariahs even in this desolate region; shunned and friendless, victims of a fate whose results had spelt tragedy.
"Well," cried the young fellow at last. "I guess I'll go and have a look at the place myself. I can't lose my way this time. That old shaft is a good landmark."
He nodded carelessly to his strange companion, and strode on with the quick, eager step of youth spurred by curiosity.
The old labourer stood by the grazing sheep leaning on his stick and watching the departing figure.
"M'appen 'ee wouldna be in sich almighty haste if 'ee know'd all," he muttered, shaking his head warily, as at things unutterable. Then he sank down on a wedge of broken stone and began the arduous task of minding the sheep. This he accomplished by closing his eyes, what time he leant hands and chin for support on his stout ash staff, his head gradually performing a melancholy see-saw movement, to the accompaniment of occasional snores. Age, like youth, has certain vagrant tendencies for which due allowance must needs be made.
Meantime, Rufus Myrthe is making slow and arduous progress over waste ground, rough stones, and huge spaces of bog. The soft, grey sky wore the misty look of threatened rain; the air blew keen from the surrounding heights. He was conscious of hunger, and regretted that he had not thought of providing himself with even the labourer's frugal fare of bread and bacon. But he was determined to get to the old mine before returning to the Inn, and tried to forget trivial discomforts.
It took longer than he had believed possible to get within appreciable distance of his self-set goal, and half-way to it the clouds gathered darkly overhead, and a sweep of rain blew over the moor. He muttered something uncomplimentary to the Derbyshire climate, which had shown its worst and most depressing aspect to him in a three weeks' experience.
"The twenty first day of rain," he said, turning up the collar of his rough tweed coat. "Well, I'm so used to soaking now that it can't harm me. The clouds hereabouts are sort of leaking water-butts, with the taps left on. You get it all sides, all ways. On the peaks, and under the peaks, and alongside of the peaks. Valley, wood, or height—just the same! Reckon I've never had so much to do with promiscuous shower baths since my poor old mother gave up weeping over her boy's unregenerate soul, when she took up with the Christian Science folk." His foot slipped at this moment, and he made further acquaintance with the qualities of peat soil. Forcible exclamations seemed an inexhaustible accompaniment to this quagmire, and led to vaunting the superiority of land methods "out West," as he called it. "Guess we'd have had this levelled and drained before building an Inn within two miles of it!" Then he remembered that the house had never been intended for its advertised purpose, but utilised owing to stress of circumstances.
These reflections cast his thoughts back into that channel of mystery to which the strange words of the Silent Woman had been an introduction.
With his eyes on the ground, and his mind at work in wide fields of conjecture, he plodded on, determined to find out the mystery, if mystery there was; determined to fight for his heritage, however poor a thing it looked. Determined, too, to force the truth from that surly brute who had defied him "whatever the cost." He had braced his young shoulders and lifted his head to look up to and beyond the circle of these endless peaks when that last exclamation burst audibly from his lips. The sound of his own voice on that moorland solitude came strangely to his ears. Came, too, with that awakening to common facts of common life that act like an ice douche on the fever heats of imagination. "Cost!"—that was the trouble. He had some money, but no immediate means of increasing it to a capital. Home supplies could not be reckoned on. He had been thrown on his own resources since boyhood, and his people had grown used to his independence. There were young ones growing up. The nest was full enough. He could not ask for money to support what might after all only prove a worthless claim. He cursed his stupidity in coming over with such scant proof as to his own rights; without having mastered all the facts appertaining to the former possessors of the Marth Farm. Fifty years of absence left a wide margin for wrong doing, and the tracing of a pedigree through female branches represented no easy task in a place where surnames dropped out in course of time, and "Tom o' Will's," and "Dick o' th' Dales," slipped into recognised titles.
His reflections brought him at last to that portion of rough upheaval, scattered stones, and rusty iron truck-lines that proclaimed where the mine had been worked. The grey clouds stooped towards it, heavy with the burden of rain. A few scattered hovels built of rough blocks of stone, that had served for the colliers' accommodation, broke or touched the level of the moorland. Beyond lay the pit mouth; a black, yawning chasm, rudely barricaded now with blocks of stone and heaps of coarse, slaty coal, that had been drawn to the surface when it was in working order.
It was all ugly, bleak, desolate; and, as if to add to the desolation, the mist of the previous day began to gather slowly from the heights, and descend valley-wards, closing in the range of peak and hill, and warning the traveller once again how treacherous and easily lost were any landmarks hereabouts.
But Rufus Myrthe stood there silent and absorbed, and looked at the deserted works as if fascinated by their ugliness. Were they really worked out, useless, profitless? Had the discovery meant so little that it could be abandoned while the scheme was in working order? He took up block after block, examining seam and quality with eager eyes. He was thinking of something a Belgian engineer had told him coming over in the steamer. Something that, if applied to seemingly worthless coals, meant a fortune. And these were not worthless. He had seen specimens far worse. Even among that collection of the foreign engineer.
"I'd try it, if it were mine," he said aloud. "I believe there's money in it, even now."
As if in response to his exclamation there suddenly echoed across the misty solitudes a weird, unearthly cry. So uncanny was the sound that Rufus Myrthe started, with the nearest approach to terror he had ever confessed.
The cry seemed human, yet he could fancy no human throat its producer. His glance sped from point to point, but found no living object in view. With an involuntary shudder the young man turned away. The rolling mists came swiftly down, and drew their formless curtains over the desolate scene. They seemed to him to shroud invisible foes, that were slowly and stealthily marching behind and dogging his hurrying footsteps.
There was more than a doubt in his mind as to whether he could find his way back to the Inn. He had but few signs to guide him, and could only trust to his own instincts and such topographical knowledge as had come to him through the medium of previous wanderings in wild, rough country.
"What an awful place it is altogether," he thought. "No wonder it's got a bad name, as old Luke said. I feel as if I could never get rid of the sound of that awful cry. It haunts me. Perhaps after all, I ought to have searched."
He started. Again the cry sounded. Close behind him now. Wailing in his ears as if some visible presence must be within arm's reach. He looked behind, beside, before. Nothing was to be seen. No living soul, save himself, stood on that desolate moorside in the gloom of mist and fading day.
Within an appreciable distance of the walled-in field, where the sheep had been grazing, the mist suddenly lifted.
Rufus Myrthe found the sight of the Inn a welcome one, despite its melancholy situation, and its unpleasant host. He hurried on till he reached the back entrance, seeing no sign of old "Luk" or any human creature. As he went within, he found a bright fire blazing in the wide chimney. Crouched before it was the queer old crone he had brought thither that morning. Moll was bustling about preparing a meal, and a fragrant smell of newly-baked oaten cakes pervaded the place. The surly master of the Inn was not visible, a matter for which Rufus Myrthe felt devoutly thankful.
"Why, ye're soaked to th' skin!" exclaimed the girl.
"I've never been anything else since I came to this part of the country," he answered. "And I'm hungry enough to empty your larder," he continued.
"I'll soon get 'ee summat," she said gravely. "But do 'ee go upstairs and change first. Feyther's took th' horse an' gone to Distly. He sed as how 'twere needful t' give notice o' th' death. And Dame theer, she had to cettify 'twer a fit, same as mither had suffered from afore."
She spoke in calm, measured accents, giving no token of grief. Rufus wondered if she was unfeeling, or only chilled by the suddenness of bereavement. He made no further remark, but went upstairs and changed his soaked garments, thankful that surly Dick Udale was absent, and wondering if any information respecting the past owners of the farm could be procured from the queer old crone, who seemed a fitting mate (as far as antiquity was concerned) for Luke Froggart.
Such types of longevity were quite novel to him, and he could not but feel interested in their experiences.
He went softly by that closed door, where the silence of years now meant the silence of eternity. He knew he should never learn the secret buried in that quiet breast, nor the reason of the terror of his questions and his name had caused her. The desire for that knowledge had leaped into a burning curiosity. Enough lay behind it to alter all his future, and he was young enough to defy Fate and believe in the impossible.
It was only when he found himself sitting at the table opposite to Moll that he felt his own history might in some way be destined to concern hers. The vague interest he had at first felt in her began to assume a new and responsible aspect. His questions, guarded as they were, led the old dame's tongue into channels of communicativeness that were veritable pitfalls. She threw light upon occurrences preceding Moll's birth, and taking many a queer turn and twist, as memory rambled between past and present, she slowly and surely came to the point that he desired. Yet then he only felt himself the poorer for the gain. Someone whose name in the Peak vernacular was almost unintelligible, and resembled nothing so much as "Marth's-son," had, at a far-off date, descended upon the farm and its uninviting acres of bog, and moor, and stone. No one seemed to have questioned the right of this individual. He stated he was a relative of the family, who by this time were all scattered abroad in America. A younger brother of this man lived with him, and the two worked the farm, with such help as old Luke Froggart could give. How they made it pay, or how they existed, was a mystery. Then, suddenly, came the discovery of coal, and a stir and bustle in the district. The change of the farmhouse into an Inn, with its queer sign of the Headless Woman, followed, and there the present owner brought his wife. From that time the place seemed marked for trouble. The brothers quarrelled continually, and one day the elder disappeared. Dick, the younger, gave out that he had left the country, having lost money over the coal venture. Again it seemed that no one disputed the explanation, or interfered with the new owner of the Inn and property. But the quality of the coal grew poorer and poorer, and finally the working of the mine was abandoned. The place was left to desolation, and the lonely Inn given over to a new loneliness. For the mistress never spoke, never gave any sign of life or interest, beyond the mechanical obligations of eating and sleeping. Her love for her child seemed quenched. The years took cruel toll of her beauty, and it faded into dull, colourless age. What she suffered, and why she suffered, no one knew. Her husband paid no heed to her, but lived his own selfish, dissolute life, absenting himself when the fancy took him, leaving her and the child to the tender mercies of old Luke, or Dame Dottery, the herb woman, their only neighbour.
So much Rufus learnt while he ate his supper and watched Moll's serious face, and felt the young manhood within him stirred to compassion for a lot so piteous and so unbecoming a maid of beauty and charms such as hers. Now and then, during the progress of the tale, he had produced a notebook and jotted down names, places, or incidents. Dates were beyond the old dame's capacity. She could reckon by such events as Christmas or Candlemas, a birth or death in the district, or a wake or a fair at some of the scattered country villages, but that was all. Such information was comparatively useless to Rufus Myrthe, and only complicated the facts he had gleaned and separated from the chaff of straying memories.
The night drew on apace. The old dame had finished and replenished the teapot placed at her disposal by Moll. She was apparently subject to sudden dozes, which would overtake her in the midst of a speech, and from which she would wake with a start, or a new piece of information not exactly relevant to the point at issue.
The girl sat by the fire knitting, and Rufus talked to her, and tried to gain some knowledge of her life, and of what it might become. He found she had received very little education, and that everything she knew of life beyond her own valley, or its nearest market town, had been gleaned from the cheap periodicals brought by travelling pedlars and treasured by her mother and herself for winter recreation in the long evenings.
"But now?" he questioned. "Now that you are alone, shall you stay on here? It is a dull, miserable place for one so young and so pretty," he added, softly.
The compliment did not affect her. Probably her looks had never awakened comment from men, or jealousy from women. She was quite unable to appraise them at their true feminine value.
"I s'pose I mun stay 'long o' feyther," she answered. "What else can I dew? I know nought o' ony trade, or ony sort o' life."
"But you would like to know? You would leave here if you could?"
"That's trew," she answered. "But I'll na' hev th' chance. There's th' house to mind, an' the hens; a man's a fule 'bout sich things as thim. I'm no sayin' but I'd love a bit o' schuling, an to read an' 'rite, same as mither cud dew. She war a wonderful clever scholar, I've heerd, tho' all I ivir seed her do war ta put things down on scraps o' paper times as feyther war out o' th' house. Scores an' scores o' thim she had, an' 'ud hide 'em away. I nivir cud see whar she put thim. It seemed she war timorous like o' bein' found out."
Rufus' brain stood suddenly at "attention."
He thought of the mysterious silence, the mysterious life, and the mysterious dying words of that strange woman. Might she have left any explanation behind her? Might it be possible that what she had written would throw a light on his lost heritage? He was convinced that he had found the right place at last. But to prove that, and so prove his own claim to it, was a totally different matter. So long a silence followed the girl's last words that the ticking of the clock in the corner became an audible emphasis of the fact. She glanced at him from time to time, wondering at his absorbed face. The old woman slumbered soundly in the chimney corner. The fire lapsed from transient spurts and splashes to a dull red glow.
"Feyther's late," observed Moll, at last, as the clock struck 8. "M'appen he'll ha' to bide th' night at Distly."
Rufus started. It struck him as odd that he should be left as guardian of the lonely Inn and its lovely mistress; for the ancient crone could scarcely be looked upon as a protectress.
"I mun go an' shut oop th' shutters at th' front," continued the girl.
"Let me help you," he said eagerly. And as she made no objection they proceeded to bolt the door leading into the porch, and shutter the window of the bar. The girl carried a candle with her, and its faint light threw up the shadowy corners, and queer, twisting passages, and lent an added mystery to the quaint old house. He noted that the front room, once the parlour, had been shut off by a wooden doorway, which was locked and bolted. The girl told him she had no recollection of its ever being used since her mother's seizure and subsequent isolation. It struck Rufus Myrthe that he would like to explore this portion of the old farmhouse for himself, but Moll had no knowledge of where the key was kept, and he had to give up the idea. They retraced their steps to the kitchen, and the girl fastened the outer door, but lit a lamp, and placed it in the window looking towards the moor.
"M'happen he'll cum; an' if so, 'twill serve to show th' way," she observed.
"But you'll have to get up to let him in," said Rufus.
"Yes, o' course," she said simply. "I've allus done it, fair times an' sich like. If he be drunk, he'll lay i' th' kitchen till mornin'. I bain't feered o' him now, as I'd used to be."
"What a life for you! How can you bear it?"
"I dunno," she said, with a little catch of her breath, that was half a sob. "I'll miss mither, I'm thinkin'. Tho' she'd nivir speak, yet 'twar a sort o' comfort to feel she war theer; an' I'd got to know th' look o' her eyes, an' her ways an' her wants. It 'ull be terrible lonesome wi'out her."
"I wish you'd come away! I wish you'd let me help you! I hate to think of leaving you to such a life, to such a father! If I put you to a school for a year or two, and then had you sent out to America, over the sea, where I come from, wouldn't you like that?"
"Like it!" Her eyes dilated. She drank in wonders of possibility with thirsting lips. "But it cudna be. It's tew bootiful to hope for 't."
"It could be; it shall be, if you wish. Your father has no right to bury you alive in a place like this; to deny you education, freedom, the rights of womanhood and beauty such as yours. It wouldn't be allowed in the land I come from. Why should it be allowed here?"
The old crone in the chimney corner stirred herself drowsily, disturbed by the raised and eager voices. Her bleared eyes surveyed the two figures, and a cunning gleam came into their depths.
"Th' ould ways is th' new ways," she muttered. "An' th' new is th' ould. But th' beauties allus get th' best o't."
Moll started and looked round.
"W'har'll ye sleep th' night, Dame?" she asked.
"Mak' me a bed on th' settle yonder. A rug an a blanket be all I want."
"An' I'll stay i' th' chair an' keep 'ee company. Maybe feyther'll come home. He sayed as 'ow he'd try if 'twar ivir so late."
"He'll na cross th' moor by th' ould mine arter dark, an' I knaw aught o' him," said the crone. "They dew say as th' horse an' rider ha' bin seen theer again, an' that bodes mischance, as all hereabouts dew knaw."
Moll shivered and grew pale. The young man turned eagerly. "Do you really mean that folk believe its haunted?" he cried.
"Folks mun believe what they've seen an' herd o' fur thesselves," said the ancient dame. "A place dunna get a bad name wi'out a bad cause."
Despite himself, Rufus felt a queer thrill run through his veins. He remembered the weird aspect of the disused mine; the weird cry that had startled him. He thought of the dead woman lying upstairs, and of her warning. Then his eyes fell on the beautiful girl, condemned to live among such surroundings; a prisoner for life in this dismal place.
"I don't care. I'll stay on. I'll see this thing through," he said to himself. "If there's wrong been done, I'll set it right. If I'm good for aught, I'm going to help this poor child to something brighter and better than her life here has been."
He felt lighter-hearted and more resolute after he had thus determined, but he said nothing more to Moll. She gave him a candlestick, and he bade her good-night. As he passed the closed door of the dead woman's room a vivid desire to look once more on that strange face took possession of him. He tried the handle and it gave at his touch. He stood on the threshold, and, holding up the candle on a level with his head, he looked across the room at the shrouded outline of the silent figure.
As he looked the desire to see the dead face grew stronger. He went slowly across to the bed, and with one hand gently lifted the sheet. Marble white, and strangely beautiful, were the uncovered features, set in silvery masses of rippling hair, unconcealed now by the disfiguring cap. Beautiful, yet stamped even in death by a sorrow unutterable, the dead face lay on the pillow, and through the half-closed lids the eyes seemed still to gaze as they had gazed in life. A shudder ran through the young man's frame, strong of nerve as he deemed himself. He hastily replaced the sheet and turned away. As he did so there thrilled through the silence a sound, half-moan, half-cry, wholly weird and terrifying. He started so violently that the candle fell to the ground. Before he could seize it the flame was extinguished.
He had to grope for a few minutes to find its whereabouts. At last he seized it, but as he rose to his feet a light flashed through the window. With a sudden instinct, for which he could not account, he drew back to the curtained side of the bed. The heavy, old-fashioned draperies kept him out of sight. Once more the light flashed out. Then he heard the window tried and opened. Curiosity overpowered his first alarm. He peered cautiously through the curtain at the head of the bed.
He saw a lantern, evidently held by some hand invisible from his point of espial. The light stole in, a long, bright ray across the space between window and bed. It fell on the white sheet and stirless form. Rufus Myrthe's eyes followed the line of light. Peering through the open window was a strange, ghastly face. It remained there for a moment, then, with a repetition of that low wail, it thrust itself into the opening hollow of the casement. Head and shoulders showed for an instant; then the light dipped and darkened as the lantern descended. There fell on the listener's strained ear the soft, uneven hop made by some creature whose lower limbs were apparently maimed, or wanting. Two or three of these hops brought the mysterious intruder to the side of the bed opposite to where Rufus stood concealed by the heavy damask folds.
He leant back against the wall. Once more the slide of the lantern was lifted, and the light thrown across the sheeted form. Then Rufus Myrthe saw a strange, dwarfed creature spring on the bed. With a cry scarcely human, it snatched away the sheet from the dead woman's face.
It seemed hours to Rufus Myrthe before his senses steadied themselves; before that weird visitor departed, even as it had come. With the closing of the window, he moved from his place of concealment, and hurried back to his own room. Arrived there, he locked the door and tried to calm his shaken nerves.
Who or what was it that had paid that strange visit to the death-room? Someone who had loved or mourned the dead woman, for grief had been plainly evident. The sad cry, the haunting moan, still wailed through the very nerve-centres of his brain. He tried to reason, to convince himself his fancy had played some trick, but the memory of that cry, the sight of that grotesque, mis-shapen creature, were things too vivid to have been the product of even an over-excited imagination.
He felt that the mysteries of the mysterious Inn were becoming more and more profound. The chance which had led him here seemed bent on proving itself the handmaid of that fate which weaves the web of human destiny from apparently insignificant threads.
Sleep was impossible. The weird, uncanny atmosphere of the place had mastered his usual contempt for everything bearing the name of mystery. Try as he might he could not rid himself of the impression that crime darkened its repute, that some evil memory enshrouded it. No mere whim, or bodily ailment, had sealed the lips and taxed the endurance of that dead woman. Some awful shock must have been the cause of her affliction. The desire to know its nature was taking slow but sure possession of him.
He paced the floor restlessly, feeling that sleep had fled for this night. He wondered if Dick had returned? If Moll slept? Where old Luke spent his nights? He went to his window and threw it open. Rain was falling heavily. A grey and starless sky lowered over peak, and moor, and valley. Not a light showed itself anywhere, and he thought to himself that it would be no easy matter for the master of the Inn to find his way, supposing he had chosen to return. He was about to close the window when something caught his eye. It was a faint moving light that played in a zig-zag line over the track leading to the old mine. Now lost; now faint as a glow-worm's spark; now broadening into a long streak of brightness. He followed its will-o'-the-wisp fantasies for a considerable time. Then it suddenly disappeared, swallowed up by the darkness of that desolate region where the old shaft lifted its melancholy signal to the melancholy landscape.
He closed the window and threw himself upon the bed, tired out with emotions, yet mentally alert.
The face of Dick Udale haunted him with its surly ruffianism; the taunts of Dick Udale rang again in his ears—"Lawful heritage."
It had seemed to him the easiest thing in the world to cross the seas and descend upon possessions to which he had a claim. But the obstacles that now confronted him bristled with all sorts of difficulty. In this remote and desolate region, where one man slipped into another man's shoes apparently unquestioned, where names held little significance, where even murder might so cloak itself that no one thought of questioning a mystery, or a disappearance, it would be a hard and wearisome task to upset a long-unopposed tenure. For aught he knew, Dick o' th' Inn, as they called him, might be one of his grandmother's family. Even Moll herself might——
He caught his breath, and sat up, thrilled with a sudden hope. Oh! If only she might be a relative, even of remote cousinship. If he could own to himself a right in her future welfare and wrest her from this ruffian who called himself her father!
But what a task. Prudence, caution, patience—the virtues that impetuous youth disdains—all would be necessary. He saw an imaginary chain, whose every link had yet to be forged from the first fragile one which lay in a dead woman's hand. And even if patience and skill were the workmen to add to its links, would the result be worth the labour?
That he could not answer. Restless and fevered, and widely wakeful, so he tossed from side to side, watching for the first sign of dawn through his little, square window.
The house remained quite silent as the night waned. Evidently Dick had not returned. He thought of the girl in the kitchen below, keeping that melancholy vigil. Death above, and age beside her. What a life for youth and beauty such as hers. "Well, I guess we're pretty well matched in ill-luck; we ought to meet on common ground so far," he reflected. . . "What wonderful hair! I wonder what it looks like unfastened?"
That wonder lasted long enough to induce the despaired-of sleep. It merged into a dream. A dream in which an Aphrodite rose, not from the sea, but from a wide, dark space of bog-land, and as she rose billows upon billows of golden light fell from her lifted head and trailed upon the dank, wet ground. As he gazed, wondering and half-awed at the amazing sight the golden locks formed themselves into a ladder, which the goddess held towards him, smiling the while with mocking lips. He felt himself spring forward to seize it, but even as hand clasped and foot touched those silken strands it fell, and he with it. He awoke at the shock of the fall. Day was come at last. Thankful to welcome it, he rose and made his toilet and then, taking his boots in his hand, so as not to awaken the sleepers in the kitchen, he let himself out of the house.
The old sheep-dog in the yard lifted his head and yawned a sleepy greeting. He heard the lowing of the cow and the noisy cackling of the poultry. The moorland air blew sweet and soft from the surrounding heights, and peak after peak stretched eagerly upwards, as if anxious to grasp that golden radiance and bathe in its liquid light. Under that blue tent of sky even the barren moorland took something of beauty showing gradations of colour, violet glints of heather, deep pools lying mirror-like among the cut spaces of dug-out turf.
Rufus Myrthe's eyes took in the scene with something of wonder at the transforming effect of sunshine. He traversed the moor to its highest point within the Inn boundary, and then tried to discern the possible extent of what had once been the Marth Farm. From thence he could see the few fields that offered mute apologies for bad farming. The grazing land where the sheep were turned out, the narrow grass track leading to the old coal mine, and farther yet—over the dreary miles of bog and moor—to where a road crept like a tawny snake towards the hamlet of Distly-in-the-Dale. The clear light served as a magnifying glass, and he saw where he had lost himself in the mist two nights before. At this point his eyes dropped nearer present surroundings, and the bleat of the sheep caught his ear. Old Luke Froggart was opening the pen and letting them forth. He, too, seemed cheered by the lovely light and warmth of the September morning, and gave vent to contentment in a flickering quaver of unlifted voice, that held all the intention of song, though lacking absolute intelligibility to the listener.
Rufus left his vantage point and crossed to where the queer old figure advanced or retired according to the disposition of the scanty flock. He gave brief but active assistance, and soon the foolish creatures were headed off in the desired direction. Old Luke's thanks took the form of a monologue, in which he described sheep as "no wiser nor wimmin for strayin' off th' straight line, an' no better reason for 't than that it were straight."
Rufus agreed with this piece of wisdom, to lessen any prolonged argument, and then tried to get the old labourer back on that track of information which concerned himself and his interests here. But Luke was garrulous to-day, and his communications displayed the vagaries of a winding intellect, as obstinately bent on straying from the straight road as the foolish ewes he had been satirising.
"I be goin' to ha' my breakfast," he said suddenly. "Time was whin th' farm wench 'ud get it ready; steamin' hot porridge an' sup o' milk or ale, which 'un liked, an' a hunch o' home-baked, thick as my arm. But now I mum do all for mysel'. An' 'tis pore fare I gits often as not, for Dick, he's that miserly wi' th' brass as tho' th' workhouse door stood open afore him."
"I'll get your breakfast if you'll show me where the stores are," said Rufus. "Many's the time I've had to do it at home, and little comes amiss to one who's had to hunt and kill his food before he can cook it."
"Ah, thee's had stirrin' times, I'll warrant. An' so young o' years, tew. Wonderful 'tis how travel an' strange countries do sharpen th' wits o' a man."
He nodded his old head wearily, as if to confirm his own opinion, and then led the way to a sort of outer kitchen in the yard, where he appeared to reside. It had a small, open fireplace, where the raked-up turf of the night before smouldered dully. A rusty iron pot swung over it, suspended by a hook and chain. A wooden bench, a tin bowl, and a heap of straw and old rugs in the corner, formed all the furnishing of the dwelling.
Rufus Myrthe glanced round, but made no comment.
The old man went to a cupboard in the wall and produced a bowl of coarse oatmeal.
"Whin you've na' bin used to do wi' much, it's wonderful easy to do wi'out it," he observed, "I ha' na' had time ta milk th' cow this mornin', but gin ye'll make th' porridge I'll soon settle wi' Sue out i' th' shed yonder."
He took up a pail and went out. Rufus Myrthe threw off his coat and set to work on the fire, and fetched in water and put it on to boil, in the matter of fact manner of one used to be his own servant.
The porridge was ready almost as soon as the old labourer returned with a pail filled with milk. Rufus had found two delpht bowls, and poured the contents of the pot into them. They ladled out the milk from the pail with a tin cup as they needed it.
"It's rare and good," observed Luke, after a few mouthfuls, shovelled in with a horn spoon.
"I mostly gets it smoked. Thee's a rare young feller to come anigh. I doubt if I cud teech 'ee more than thee knaw'st."
"So do I," laughed Rufus. "All the same I wish you'd give me some information about the coal mine. Does anyone live thereabouts?"
The old man put down his spoon and looked keenly at the inquirer. "Live do 'ee say? I dunno' 'bout livin'. They dew say as how the ill-begotten divil they calls Dwarf Japes hereabouts has ta'en to hidin' hissel i' some part o' th' ould pit."
Rufus Myrthe, in turn, put down the spoon. Relief and excitement shone in his eager eyes. "A dwarf? Can you describe it? What is it like?"
"A skeerie creetur, eno'. Twisted o' limb, an' ugly as th' sire they sez av' begotten 'un. Canna walk, but hops same as frogs dew hop, an' gets ower th' ground wi' speed o' horse. Dinna try an' see 't an' ye can help yersel'. 'Tis bad luck. Wimmin-folk an' childer are as feart o' Japes as 'twer the evil un' hissel."
"Then that accounts for it!" exclaimed Rufus, eagerly, pleased at being able to put aside the claims of his last night's visitor to anything superhuman. "It must have been the dwarf I saw."
"Thee should ha' gotten on th' knees an' said a 'Glory Be,' or summit," recommended old Luke, gravely. "Only onst I seed th' dwarf, an' I nearly lost all sivin senses in th' terror o' 't. 'Twar arter sunset, I mind, an' dark an' misty I war crossin' th' moor by th' ould pit, an' summat cum a leppin' an' a flappin' right afore me; a main an' gashly sight it war! My heart it seemed shrinkin' wi'in me, an' my knees they shook as 'twer my last hour, an' judgment awaitin'. I fell right down wi' th' sense o' fearfulness upon me, an' I said th' one text I cud call to mind ower an' ower like a earnest prayer, keepin' my eyes shut. I knaw'd I was a lost man if th' ungodly creetur should touch me. But whin I opened my eyes there war nought to be seen, so I got on to my feet an' made what haste I cud, not lookin' ta right or left, but straight afore, till a' got ta Gorse Stone Gate. I war tremblin' greatly by then, an' feered o' my life, as th' gashly thing wer' followin' an' I mind, tew, how my ould fingers shook as tho' thy'd nivir find th' latch. An' what a bang I give th' gate! O! 'twar a terrible experience for an ancient man o' my years, an' whin I heerd the bark o' ould Slack theer, an' seed un a runnin' to meet me, 'twar the joy'filest sight I can call to mind."
He took a few rapid spoonfuls of the cooling porridge and left his hearer to follow out his own line of conjecture.
"But how does this creature exist?" asked Rufus presently. "He must have food and fire, and shelter. Where does he get them?"
"From his own kin, o' course. 'Divil's spawn ha' divil's care,' as they say. Naw one knaws more than I've told 'ee."
He placed the spoon in the empty bowl and signified breakfast was over.
"I mun get ta wark now," he observed. "Maister Dick 'ull surely be comin' back tha morn. M'appen he'll ha' th' berryin' to-morrow, an' mak' another Sunday o't. If ye'll tak th' can o' milk wi'in 'twill lighten my labour, an' do 'ee na hurt. Ay, but ye're well-grown an' strong for a lad. What might yer age be, traveller?"
Rufus Myrthe laughed. "A long way off four-score, my friend," he said.
"Scarce two, I warrint. Well, well; ye'll reach my years an' ye live long eno'."
It was midday before the master of the Inn returned and brought with him an undertaker, who was accompanied, in turn, by a melancholy, red-eyed youth as assistant. These individuals stayed on, and appeared to make all necessary arrangements for the ceremony.
Rufus kept out of the way as much as possible from a sense of delicacy, which, had he known it, was quite lost upon his host. He made no comment on finding the young fellow had stayed on, but absented himself from meals, as if no way desirous of his company. With nightfall Rufus wondered how the Inn was to accommodate such an addition to its usual inmates. He begged Moll to take his room for herself, but she refused. In the end the undertaker, Samuel Sowkes by name, was accommodated with a shake-down in the inn-keeper's own room; the melancholy assistant was relegated to the hospitality of old Luke; and Dame Dottery and Moll once more shared the kitchen.
That night Rufus slept well and soundly, awakening only when the sun was fully risen and the Inn astir. He ate his frugal meal at a corner of the table, and, that finished, offered his services as one of the bearers.
A strange and melancholy procession filed forth from the desolate place.
The coffin was borne by the four men, and old Luke and Moll walked behind. The churchyard for which they were bound lay miles distant. Their way branched off from the main road into a deep ravine, or "clough," its rocky sides laden with holly and furze bushes. Through this hollow a small stream ran, first babbling by the footway, then widening and deepening till it burst into a mimic cataract and went tumbling and foaming into the valley below. This valley sprang like an oasis from the breast of the rugged slopes that shut it in on three sides. It consisted of some dozen stone houses, a few small farms, and, set in the midst of all, an ancient church with a square tower, green and grey, and moss-grown with the contributions of centuries.
The bearers halted at the opening of the vale, and waited the arrival of the other mourners. Rufus Myrthe seated himself on a block of stone and looked through the mouth of the dell into the lovely circle of green and blue beyond. It was a surprise to him to find such a gem of fertility and beauty amidst the barren wastes that had hitherto represented scenery.
"Is that Distly?" he asked of the red-eyed youth, who was mopping his damp face with a chequered handkerchief, conveying a discreet hint of half-mourning by its pattern.
"That? Oh, no, sir," he answered, in a mincing accent that seemed to have lost its Derbyshire quaintness without gaining the educated distinction of the southern counties. "Distly lies further south. It is a market town, and has a considerable population. The valley yonder is called Endcliff Vale. That old church is almost tumbling down with age. The roof leaks, and the tower is half a ruin. They do say it ought to be restored, but no one hereabouts can find the money. Mostly, the people of Endcliff goes to chapel, but the parson keeps on the church for buryings, and christenings, and weddings. There bean't—isn't I mean—more'n fifty all told living hereabouts. These three farms take up all the ground that's any good, and except sowing and harvest times, there's nothing much going on."
A reminder from surly Dick that "time were oop," stopped further conversation; and once again Rufus aided the carrying of that melancholy burden to the little weed-grown churchyard where it was to lie at rest.
The sexton held open the gate as the bearers passed in. The white-gowned figure of the clergyman, an old weather-beaten individual, his scanty grey locks covered with a velvet cap, led the way, murmuring huskily the opening formula of the solemn burial service.
It struck Rufus Myrthe as strange that this was the first time in his life he had stood by a grave and participated in the melancholy offices pertaining to death. Again he wondered whether there had been a special purpose in that visit to the melancholy Inn. Again he recalled the stranger experiences resulting from that visit.
Then his eyes fell on Moll, as she stood opposite in a dark stuff dress, a black kerchief, lent by Dame Dottery, covering her rich-hued hair. Her face was very pale; at times he saw her lip quiver; but she gave no other sign of emotion, even when the coffin was lowered, and the earth from the sexton's spade fell heavily and dull on its lid. The ceremony was soon over. The old clergyman closed his book, and then glanced at the faces of the mourners. They were parishioners of his, but had never troubled his church with attendance, or himself for spiritual advice. The man had a bad name; the girl he knew by repute as "Moll o' th' Inn," a wild, feckless lass, with the manners of a lout, and the habits of a ploughboy.
It surprised him to see how beautiful the girl was, and how quiet in manner and appearance. He approached and said a few kindly words to her, as she stood, half-dazed, looking down into the clayey hollow where all she had known of motherhood was lying now.
She started slightly as he spoke, but made no response.
The old parson then turned to the ill-looking, taciturn widower. "Dick Udale," he said, "it has pleased Providence to take your wife into His own care and keeping. I have heard of you and her. I cannot tell how much is true or false. But I should like to ask what you mean to do with your daughter? She is no longer a child. Soon she will be a woman. You don't send her to school. You suffer her to work like a farm lad; tending sheep, harvesting, even following the plough, so I've been told. Now that she has no mother her life will be worse. It is your duty to atone for previous neglect. I hope you mean to do so."
Surly Dick lifted his eyes for a moment, to the gentle, placid face of the speaker.
"I doan't see as it's ony concern of yourn," he answered, rudely. "I doan't come a meddlin' wi' your family; and you'd best dew the same 'long o' mine. I dunna come to church, for I canna stummack th' doctrine; you parsons be for givin' all folks to the devil an' hell fire, if they doan't think as yew think, an' dew as yew tells them. Yew've done your bizness tha' morn, an' I'll pay ye for't. But I doan't want yer advice. Whin I does, I'll ax ye for't. I mind ye tellin' folks as how I was a blas-phe-mous ould heathen, an' if that's Christian charity, thee'rt welcome to keep it to theysel'. I winna go ta tha church, an' I'll do wi' my lass yonder jist what I sees fit to dew."
The astonished clergyman got very red and hot, and gave a response more indignant than Christian. Then, as if remembering the occasion and the recently performed ceremony, he turned hastily away, pausing a moment beside Moll to bid her come to the vicarage if ever she needed help or counsel.
Then the group broke up, the undertaker and his assistant going by a nearer route to their own place of abode at Distly, and Dick and Moll and the ancient follower forming a straggling line homewards.
Rufus Myrthe lingered behind. He wished to examine the old tombstones, and also to inquire of the clergyman as to the family traditions of the Marth Farm. Surely, here would be records of births or deaths. There must be a register of such deaths in the vestry, and he determined to see it. He loitered through the dismal churchyard, pushing aside the long grass that hid the gravestones, reading names and epitaphs with eager interest. But he found nothing to reward his search. As he came round the old tower once more he saw that the sexton was at work filling up the newly-made grave.
He strolled up, intent on questioning him as to the matter he had at heart. Learning that the old man had been bell-ringer, grave-digger, and "clerk o' th' keys an' vestry," and had also seen three "passons" in and out of office during his life Rufus Myrthe commenced laying diplomatic siege to his memory. It served much the same purpose as his questioning Luke Froggart. A rambling narrative, a curious mixture of fact, hearsay, and deductions therefrom, the fixing of dates by parochial events, or domestic trails largely connected with the official calling of the narrator.
The task grew more hopeless as the said narrator grew more garrulous. Rufus Myrthe shrugged his shoulders at each vain attempt to connect what he had collected. A suggestion of the vestry brought information that the keys were at "th' passon's house," and might, or might not, be given to the applicant.
"But if it's t' ould books 'ee wants to see," continued the sexton, "I dunno wheer they be presint moment. They war allus kept in th' cupboard o' th' vestry till Parson Slack, him as I tould 'ee niver couldna abide Christmas times, he had thim tuk to th' vicarage, as th' lock warn't considered safe. The new man, him as ye see to-day, he said he cudna find only th' new one as war bought a matter o' ten or twelve year back. But maybe they're in the passonage somewhere. 'Tis a mighty ould house nigh on two hundred or more year. An' full o' corners an' cupboards, an' dark places. M'appen th' passon 'ull look un oop if it be a weighty matter o' birth or burial-tracing, as 'ee say."
Rufus decided to seek the clergyman without further delay, and having presented his informant with half a crown, he left him to complete his task.
He found the old cleric at home, and was ushered into a dark, mouldy-looking room, the walls lined with books, and the table covered with papers. A fire was burning in the grate, and the clergyman himself sat before it in an old leather armchair. He recognised the young man at once as a member of that strange funeral party of the morning. His greeting, perhaps owing to that circumstance, was of a less cordial description than might have been expected. Rufus took a seat and explained his errand in a direct, breezy fashion peculiar to himself.
The Reverend David Blore listened, glancing from time to time at the young fellow's handsome, eager face. When he ceased speaking he removed the glasses from his eyes, laid them down with the slow, deliberate movements of one to whom haste is unnecessary, and with equal deliberation observed that the young American's request was somewhat unorthodox.
"We do not permit strangers to peruse our registers, unless under very special circumstances," he said. "If you can give the names of the parties in whom you are interested, and dates as to the birth or interment of any of them, I would do my best to trace them, but without such information I can do nothing. Besides, I am in grave doubt as to the existence of the old parish registers. My predecessor seemed somewhat careless in these matters. I found comparatively new ones, with entries of some half-dozen years only. The sexton informed me that the old ones had been removed from the vestry owing to the cupboard lock proving unsafe. The whole church is in a lamentable condition," he went on. "Shameful neglect on the part of the lords of the manor. And the parish is so scattered that I have never had anything worth calling a congregation."
"But these books," persisted Rufus; "surely they must be somewhere in the house."
"No doubt," said Mr. Blore, oracularly.
"No doubt. But, as I have told you, my young sir, I should require proof of your bona fides. Your right to the family name and family history. Fifty years, half a century of absence, leaves space for unjust, as well as just claims. In the first place, your name is not the same."
"No," said Rufus. "It got changed in America. I guess Marth easily twists into Myrthe; it all depends on how you pronounce it. And folks out West have their own notions of spelling and pronouncing. That's easily accounted for."
"You believe your grandmother originally owned this farm on which the Inn stands now?"
"The Inn always stood there. It was the old farmhouse. All this man did was to rig up a bar and hang up an old sign he'd bought somewhere."
"These facts, of course, are deduced from country gossip?"
"Naturally. What else can I get hold of?"
"Is your pecuniary position such that you could afford legal research into the matter?" asked the old rector.
"I've just enough to live on at the present time," laughed the young man. "I had such an almighty opinion of this country, and its liberty and justice, and all that, you know, that I thought I'd only to come right away to the place where my people lived and died, and say, 'Look here, I'm the only legal descendant of such and such a family, and there's a will, leaving the property to me,' and then I could step right in and take possession, or sell up, or do what I liked."
The old cleric gave him an indulgent smile.
"How primitive, and how—if you will excuse the phrase—how very American! You have been taught diligently the uses of free speech and free action, the shams of monarchy and nobility, the senselessness of legal obligations, in a land where judge and jury are bought and sold by the highest bidder! You come over here thinking to move so ponderous and weighty a machine as the English Law by your unaided efforts. I do not think you will succeed, my young friend. With all deference to your country and your own enthusiastic youth, I do—not—believe—you will succeed."
Rufus sprang to his feet. A just and natural indignation fired his blood and flashed in his eye.
"I reckon we'll see about that, sir!" he exclaimed. "I had hoped to find you ready to assist me in what may prove a difficult task, but it seems more in your line to put obstacles in the way than help to clear them. Why, I don't know; unless it's sheer perversity of the clerical nature. I'll not trouble you any more. When I've got what I want, as I mean to get it, I'll show you if the American system is to be despised, as you appear to think!"
He took up his hat and left the room in a white heat of indignation.
Rufus Myrthe slammed the gate and crossed the gravel path leading into the churchyard, in a royal rage at the result of his interview. But, after a moment or two, he cooled down and began to laugh.
"The old gentleman was so full of his own dignity and so self-important. I suppose I wasn't humble or respectful enough. Well, I can't get over the notion that my idea of reverence is as good for me as for the man I'm speaking to. I know what I am and what I want, and I'm legitimately qualified to get it if I can. I shan't go hat in hand to anyone begging for favours. Their way of doing business over here isn't mine. We'll see in the end which works best. . . . I wish this moorland air hadn't such a trick of giving one an appetite. Now, if I hadn't offended that old numbskull, I might have lunched at the parsonage or vicarage, or whatever they call it. As it is—well, I guess I'd best consult my friend the sexton."
The individual in question had finished his task, and was shouldering his spade to depart. He offered to lead the young stranger to a farm where he might get some refreshment, and beguiled the way by anecdotes of the Dale folk and their doings. It seemed odd to Rufus Myrthe that people living within a twenty-mile radius of one another were comparatively ignorant of names, or histories, outside their own small hamlets. The Peak heights above the valley were as distant as the Alps in impassibility to the simple folk below. Lives passed on, and others replaced them, and yet scarce one member of a family, or a hamlet, ever visited one of the big towns beyond. Staffordshire and Yorkshire were only names to old Reuben Drabb, who could not imagine them as neighbouring counties. The woods and vales of which Rufus Myrthe could speak, such as Alderley, Matlock, Bakewell, Hassop, Chee Tor and Chatsworth, he seemed to regard as other worlds; places he should never have the luck to see for himself. That one so young as his present companion should have crossed the ocean and travelled half over the New World and the old, were facts too amazing for him to credit.
He gazed and gaped and muttered. "To think o't! Did 'ee be so venturesome now! Lord, ta cross seas in what I've heerd tell is a monster, carryin' o' steam kettles in it's belly, an' driven, so to say, by power o' that only!" . . . All of which afforded Rufus considerable amusement and helped to pass the time till they reached what he was told was Cowlease Farm. Here he found himself hospitably entertained at Reuben Drabb's introduction. The old sexton was also offered bread and cheese and cider in the kitchen. There he regaled himself joyfully, while relating to such as would listen the wonders he had heard from the young traveller.
It was long past noon when Rufus Myrthe set out once more to return to the Inn. His mind was preoccupied now, for he had determined on an interview with Dick Udale that night. He could hardly prolong a stay he felt was unwelcome, and yet such weighty matters lay before and around it that all personal consideration seemed insignificant.
He was tired and somewhat despondent by the time he reached his destination. The singular dreariness of the place struck him afresh in contrast with the lovely vale he had left behind, and the thought that Moll was destined to waste her youth and beauty amid such desolation again stirred the chivalry of young manhood within his heart to bold ventures on her behalf. He entered the now familiar kitchen with the step and mien of one whose object spells "conqueror." However, so brave a front was wasted for the moment. Not a soul was there.
Wondering where Moll could be, he slowly ascended the stairs and went into his own room. He had scarcely closed the door before a cautious tap caused him to open it again. Moll stood on the threshold. Her face was flushed, her hair in disorder. In her hands she held a bundle of papers of all sorts and sizes. Hurriedly she came into the room, closing the door behind her.
"Look!" she cried. "Look! I've found th' papers I was telling 'ee of. I dunna want feyther to knaw. I canna read mysel', only big printed words, same as on th' milestones an' gates o' farms an' sic like. Will 'ee keep 'em safe? I dursna hide 'em, for fear he'd find 'em out. An' I'm certain sure as poor mither nivir wanted him to read what she'd wrote theer."
Rufus looked bewildered. "But I've no right to her confidence, either," he said. "I don't like to take charge of private papers. They may concern others—you, perhaps?"
"Then if 'ee reads them an' finds aught o' tha' sort thee can tell me o't," she answered. "Here, for I munna stay." She tossed the package on the bed and turned to leave the room.
"Where is your father?" asked Rufus.
"He war i' th' bar whin I cum to open th' room yonder. He's sure to be on th' drink now. An' I dursna cross him sic times. Tell me? Thou'lt stop on a bit. It's mighty lonesome, an' times I'm afeerd feyther 'll do me a harm. He's often eno' threatened it."
"I mean to stay till I've done something to help you now, and assure you a better future," exclaimed the young man, determinedly.
She gazed at him with wondering, incredulous eyes then slipped softly from the room, leaving the torn and disorderly papers on the bed.
Rufus Myrthe regarded them curiously for a few moments. He was thinking of that silent figure he had seen seated by the wide old chimney; thinking of the weight of sorrow that might have lain so heavily on the suffering heart; thinking too of Moll's words about the hours spent in writing these selfsame scraps.
What secret did they contain? What might they not shed on the path of the mystery where his own feet had so strangely wandered?
Rufus Myrthe took up that bundle of papers, and ended his reflections by action. He rolled the loose leaves together, tying them with a string he took from his satchel.
He felt he ought not to read them. The right to do so surely belonged to the writer's own child. Evidently she had desired to conceal them from her husband. "Well, for the present, I'll take care of them," he said to himself, and locked the case, and slung it over his shoulders. "I may have to leave sooner than I intended." He remembered the unfriendly bearing of his host. "So I'll take charge of my property right away. Now to face that grizzly bear below."
He found that "grizzly bear," as he called him, sitting by the fire in the kitchen. On the wooden stool by his side stood a jug and mug. He was smoking a pipe, and the fumes of strong tobacco filled the place.
He glanced up as the young man entered, and noted the satchel. "Goin'?" he asked, surlily. "I've made out the reck'nin' for 'ee. Theer 'tis."
He pointed with his pipe-stem to where a dirty bit of paper lay on the kitchen table.
"I was about to ask leave to stay another night," answered Rufus, taking up the bill and running a quick eye over the items. "You see," he went on, coolly, "night's falling, and I've had considerable experience of the kind of roads and lighting you give a traveller in these parts. I'd prefer waiting for daylight—if you wouldn't be too much inconvenienced," he added, politely.
"Pay th' bill first an' I'll think on't," returned his host.
Rufus took some silver from his pocket and slowly counted out the sum due. "There," he said, laying the money in the man's rough, outstretched hand. "And now let's talk."
Without further ceremony he drew up a chair to the fire, and facing the settle so recently vacated by that strange and silent occupant.
Dick Udale gave no very courteous response to that invitation. A grunt, and the replacing of his pipe between wolfish, discoloured teeth was his only recognition of the suggestion made by his guest.
"I'll come to the point at once," continued Rufus. "And if it's all the same to you I wouldn't object to a glass of your liquor. I've done a goodish bit of walking to-day."
Dick raised his voice and called to Moll, bidding her bring a glass. "An' get 'ee off somewhar' else," he added, politely. "Doan't be messin' about here wi' yer catlap o' tea."
"I've had it," she answered, quietly, and went out, closing the door behind her.
"It's about your daughter I want to speak," began the young man. "Do you think it's fair or right to keep her here in this lonely place, without education, without friends, or companions of her own sex?"
"Be 'ee takin' up th' passon's gab?" inquired Dick. "I can mind my own bizness, as I tould him."
"No doubt. But would not that business be the better for a mistress with some education, some knowledge of life? A year or two of schooling would make all the difference to Moll. Why, the poorest farmer's child in my country can read, and write, and reckon. The world's marching on beyond these sleepy hollows, and its watchword is Education."
"Dunna I knaw that, an' th' harm o't! Breedin' discontent; leadin' hussies to read lyin' books an' b'lieve lyin' tongues. Turnin' their heads till they be as fractious an' fancifu' as weaned babes. Ye wunna catch me spendin' my siller o' Moll i' that fashion. Let her bide; it's no matter ta' 'ee what chances t' her."
Rufus Myrthe set down the glass he had raised to his lips. The blood seemed to surge in a sudden burning tide to his brow, and his hand clenched involuntarily.
"No matter to me," he repeated. "What if I say it is? What if I offer to discharge the duty you neglect? I can put her in the care of people who will treat her decently. It shan't cost you a farthing, but it will make a good woman of her, and save her from the fate that has widowed you to-day!"
That burst of honest indignation seemed to astonish the callous brute that heard it. He surveyed the speaker from beneath his shaggy brows with a new interest.
"Do 'ee mean the'll pay?" he asked. "'Tis a suddin freaks what's took 'ee? Th' wench bean't more nor sixteen year, an' childish for that. Is't her face as ha' made a gaby o' ye, all suddin like?"
"Honestly, I'm sorry for her," answered Rufus. "And I mean what I say. How do I know, either, that she hasn't a claim upon my kinship? I told you my story, and I've found out that this Inn, and this property, is really what used to be the Marth Farm. If I can prove my rights, which I'm pretty sure I can, I mean to re-work that coal-mine."
Dick Udale started, and an oath escaped him.
"Rights!" he repeated. "Thee talk o' rights! Theer's a bit o' law as 'ull cross tha' rights hereabouts."
"What do you mean? You said something of that sort before."
"I did; an' I'll say summat o' ta' sort again, an' as often as ye talks that fule talk o' rights! Prove 'em! Prove that thy parents' folk wer' lawful wedded man an' wife! Thee canna do't. Thee canna find aught save as Marth o' th' Dale war a misbegotten fly-by-night, as throw'd in wi' a young farmer an' followed him to Amerikay more'n two score years agone!"
Rufus' healthy, bronzed face paled. "You'll have to prove your words, Dick Udale," he said. "Just as much as I shall prove my claim. But I don't wish you ill for all your hard words, and I won't go back on my offer."
"You young fule!"
"Fool or nor, will you let me do as I said?"
"Tak th' wench, an' ye will. She's best out of my way. A pretty handfu' ye'll be gettin'."
"I may send her to a school, and keep her there till she's 18 years of age!"
"Till she's 50, an't please ye," laughed the man, brutally.
"You must sign a paper giving your permission. It wouldn't be fair if you changed your mind and ordered her back."
"I'm na' likely to change ma mind. I knaw a strappin' fine wench as 'ull gladly housekeep ta me, an' keep th' Inn goin', an' I wish."
Again he laughed, and again the red blood of indignant youth mantled in brow and cheek of his hearer.
"Very well. It's a bargain," he said, drawing a deep breath of relief. "I'll draw up a form and you shall sign it. There's a place I know of, quiet and respectable, where she'll be quite safe. It's at Torcastle, near Peak Edge."
"I dunna care if 't be i' th' moon. I say ye must be crazy to dew such a thing. M'appen next ye'll marry th' wench when she's scholard eno' ta please 'ee."
The suggestion struck the young Quixote as a piece of mirthful irony.
He pushed aside his chair, and rose to his feet.
"Stranger things than that may happen," he said.
The master of the Inn took himself off after that interview. Where, he did not choose to say. Rufus, coming back to the kitchen, found Moll alone. She was sitting, gazing into the fire. Its red glow deepened her ruddy hair, and threw up the lines of her beautiful form as she bent towards it.
"I've some news for you," he said, gently, as he came and stood beside her. "Your father has consented that you shall leave here, and go to school."
She looked up eagerly. "Is it trew?" she cried, breathlessly. "Sayin' is one thing wi' him, an' doin' another. I canna b'lieve it."
"I have his written promise, and I'll keep him to it. Do you like the idea?"
"Like it!" Her face glowed like the heart of a rose. "Like ta leave a prison house. Like to see summat as bean't bog an' moor, or sheep."
She sprang to her feet, quivering with excitement. "Ye're not fuling me? It's trew?"
"Every bit. True as that I'm speaking to you. If you like to come along with me to-morrow, I reckon you're free to do it."
"To-morrow," she gasped. "Sae soon?"
"I'd say it couldn't be too soon to get away from such a place, such a life. You're not afraid to trust me, are you, Moll?"
She looked up at the handsome bronzed young face, the honest clear eyes that so frankly met her own.
"No-a," she said, slowly. "I felt first time as I seed ye as ye war good."
He coloured shamefacedly. "I don't know about being good. I pitied you so; and I simply couldn't help trying to make your life a bit brighter and better. And the first step to that, Moll, is a little schooling, and the company of other girls. I call it a darned shame to bury you alive in such a place as this."
"But what'll feyther dew? He mun ha' someone to mind the house, an' th' poultry. Ould Luke does well eno' for th' out-work, but there's ne'er a soul hereabouts as can cum in ta dew chores," (housework) "an' a man's naught but a fule at sich things."
"I understood your father that he could find someone able and willing to mind the place during your absence," answered Rufus, wondering how long it would take before she dropped her quaint mode of speech, and whether she would keep the accent when she learnt to pronounce the words.
"Someone i' ma place," she repeated, slowly. "I dun knaw who't may be. Ould Dame Dottery be tew ould, an' there's na ither wimmin-folk 'bout here, save——"
She paused, and half involuntarily her gaze turned to the vacant settle. "Yes. There be one," she said, slowly. "A bad, trapezin' sort o' wench, allus arter th' men folk, an' mad for junketin' i' th' wake-weeks, leavin' her ould mother ta dew as best she can. But, sure, she wudna put up wi a place like this."
"Well, never mind about who comes, or doesn't come, so long as you can get away from it. You haven't told me yet if you can put your things together, and come off to-morrow?"
"I ha' na' sae mony cloes as 'twill be difficult to pack i' a bundle. But——" she broke off suddenly. "Ha' ye thocht o't? Will na' th' schule-folk be shamed-like o' me?"
"No," he said gently. "Don't you fear. The lady to whom you go is very kind and very charitable. You will be taught useful things—reading, writing, needlework, cooking—so that you could earn your own living any day, if you wish. I hope you will come out to America when you're a bit older. My mother would gladly give you a home. You're a sort of cousin of ours, you know."
"I didna knaw," she said, thoughtfully. "But I'm glad o't."
"And you'll be ready to go to-morrow?"
"Yes. . . if feyther doesna change his mind. I'm feered ta trust him."
"I bet he'll not change his mind," said her champion decisively. "You needn't fear. And, oh! Moll, about those papers? I'll give them back into your care, once you get away from here. Very soon you'll be able to read them for yourself. It is better you should do so. There may be things in them not meant for strangers to see."
"But if ye be kin ta us, ye're na' a stranger."
"That's true. Yet I'd rather you read them. It won't be long to wait. A few months, that's all."
"A few months," repeated the girl thoughtfully. "'Tis nigh Lammas now. Maybe I'll learn quick. I'll try my best. An' as soon as I kin read print I kin read ritin', can't I?"
"Writing is a bit different, but I guess you'll be able to do it in—say, three months."
"Three months? And where'll yew be yersel'? Ye winna leave me quite alone wi' strange folk as may mock my queer tongue, an' my pore close?"
He had made up his mind that her wardrobe should receive due attention, but he did not mention the fact just then.
"I shall be in the neighbourhood," he answered. "I've business here that promises to be longer and more troublesome than I expected. I'll come and see you as often as I can, as often as the rules permit. That I promise you."
She looked at him again, her eyes deepening and growing misty with sudden tears.
"I dew think ye be made of goodness," she said. "'Twas more'n luck set you lost an' strayin' o' th' moor yonder. 'Twas God Almighty hissel, I'm thinkin'."
* * * * * * * *
The question of youth invariably arouses the sneers or condemnation of its elders. Yet, oftentimes, a touch of envy lies at the root of both. For only when the heart is pure, and generous emotions fire the blood, and to know of wrong is to condemn it for its own vileness, can that chivalry which defends the weak, and upholds the right, exist.
That its existence is brief, and its designs ridiculed, are at once a shame and dishonour to the world at large. The voice of youth pleading for belief, the heart of youth pulsing with brave and pure ideals; these are drowned and set aside; and, instead of winning a hearing, the claimant is forwarded to the Courts of Experience, and bidden to study there the truths of life written in human documents. As yet, Rufus Myrthe had been his own teacher. His breezy, gay independence, his belief in himself, his fine physique, untouched by disease or evil living, had helped him in a great measure to win confidence and make friends wherever he went. One such friend, whose kindness of heart had led her to choose a life of large charity, rather than a narrow sphere of mere domestic self-interest, was at present the subject of the young man's impetuous confidence. She lived in a lovely old house, one portion of which was sacrificed to the object for which her life and wealth had been freely given. She called it a Home for Middle-Class Girls, whom death or poverty constrained to be their own life-helpers.
Rufus Myrthe had met her during a holiday excursion, which had thrown them together, and given her an opportunity of playing guide to him on his first introduction to the Peak country. By aid of the explanations of Miss Moneyash, he had learned much of the history of this romantic district; through her eyes he had seen much of its beauties; from her he had heard many of its quaint legends, and grown to love the varied charms of tor and river, valley and moor. When they parted company it was with warm friendliness and an eager request to be informed of his success in that search for his lost heritage which he had confided to the philanthropic lady.
He arrived in person one morning, and the subject matter of his call was to beseech her interest in Molly Udale. As briefly and directly as he always spoke, the young fellow gave the history of this past week, and laid before Miss Moneyash the difficulties that had beset his inquiries. He persisted that Molly was a cousin, and that he felt it a duty to rescue her from such undesirable surroundings.
The fact of his constituting himself a guardian to the girl; of his bringing her over the moor and dale in this extraordinary fashion; and, finally, his desire to place her under the care of his philanthropic acquaintance, were things only possible for one of his nationality. A direct method of doing what he wanted to do, and asking for what he had determined to obtain. He held unorthodox but healthy theories respecting the duties of men and women, and the true objects of life. The ingenious mode of his arguments and the force of his reasons left his auditor defenceless, as indeed they had done on other occasions less personal than the present instance.
"But, my dear young sir," she remonstrated; "you must allow that this is a very unorthodox proceeding. In the first place, my girls are all orphans, so that I have entire control of their welfare. In the next, you are not the proper person to pay for your cousin's education, as you suggest. In fact, there is no absolute proof that she is your cousin. And further——"
"I reckon we'll leave further alone," interrupted Rufus Myrthe. "If you won't help the girl I must find someone who will. That's just the way of it!"
A mental picture flashed before Miss Lavinia's eyes of young Quixote leading beauty in distress all about the country in his search for home and teachers. She laughed softly, and Rufus felt his cause won.
"Very well. Bring her to me and I'll see what I can do for her. But there's no question of payment here, as I told you before. It has pleased Providence to endow me with more wealth than I can possibly spend on myself. I therefore use it to assist the less fortunate."
"I think you're about the next door to an angel!" exclaimed Rufus, warmly. "And if I was glad for nothing else that brought me here, I'm glad because I met such a good woman. There! That's straight, honest truth. Let's shake! I'm glad the matter's settled."
The little old lady, breathless and flushed from an energetic grip, and the rapidity of formed conclusions, vainly tried to stay a new torrent of explanations.
Thinking that enthusiasm must eventually tire itself out, she listened patiently.
The young man's desire now was to provide his self-appointed charge with garments suited to her new position, and he wished her entrance into the house deferred until such arrangements could be carried out. Here Miss Lavinia came to his aid willingly. She had a stock of ready-made clothes, neat and useful, and of varied sizes, always on hand. There would be no difficulty in fitting out the new inmate as soon as she arrived.
Rufus Myrthe then approached the subject of visits and holidays, and a fresh battle ensued. The girls were not allowed to go out of the Home without superintendence, unless to visit relatives. Miss Lavinia was shocked at such an innovation as Rufus suggested. That Moll should have every Sunday to herself, and be allowed to walk or spend the day with him.
"I mayn't be in the neighbourhood very long," he added, by way of extenuating circumstances. "And she'll be terribly lonely and strange at first, poor child! You must let me see her and cheer her up a bit, Miss Moneyash."
"You really are a very extraordinary young man!" exclaimed the little lady. "I don't know what to say to you! Such a breaking down of rules will demoralise my whole establishment. I cannot favour one girl at the expense of the rest. You must see that for yourself."
"You could explain that Molly Udale, not being an orphan, came here as a parlour-boarder, or something, and was allowed more liberty."
Again she laughed. "But, my dear boy, do be reasonable. If you were her father, or her brother, well and good, but you are only a young man, and she—from all accounts—a very pretty girl. Such throwing together must lead to mischief, and probably gossip. You must think of the girl's reputation."
He waxed impatient. "Now, look here, Miss Moneyash, I've always thought that it's a useless waste of time to fancy any particular thing's going to happen long before it does happen. You just follow my plan and take things as they are, not for what they might possibly chance to be if something or other took place that may never take place."
"You mean that you leap first and look afterwards? Most young folk do. But the consequences are often disastrous."
"All right, I reckon you know best. Girls aren't much in my line. But it's a bit hard on Moll, poor child. She'll be like a caged bird. Oh; that reminds me. How long will it take her to learn to read? Handwriting, as well as print, I mean?"
"How long? That depends on herself, of course. Whether she's quick or slow; anxious to learn or indifferent. Some girls can read in three months' time quite fluently. Others take a year."
"I think she's no laggard," he said slowly. "And there's a reason for her making haste. She's got to learn, and learn as quick as ever she can. And the queer part of it is, I've got to stay on in this part of the country till she's able to. Funny, isn't it?"
"Is there a secret?" questioned the old lady, feminine curiosity alert.
He nodded. "Yes. And perhaps a mighty unpleasant one. However, that's a matter can stand over."
"And when do you return to America?"
"When?" He looked full at her with his frank, boyish eyes. "That's what I'd like to know myself. I've got to fight for my rights, and I mean to do it. I shall mail straight home for any papers, letters, or documents referring to this property. When I get dates I've something to go upon. Then I'll get to those old registers I told you of, and see what happened to the earlier branches of the family. Next, I'll turn that old scrub of a Dick Udale out of the Inn, and see if I can't work that coal myself. I've got an idea——"
"You will turn Dick Udale out of the Inn?" interposed Miss Lavinia, calmly. "And Dick Udale is Molly's father. What do you suppose she will say to such action?"
There was a moment's silence, born of consideration, at the sudden facing of an unconsidered result.
Young Quixote looked at the calm, placid face of the little old lady, but his eyes had travelled from them to her cap, with its trembling lilac bows, and downwards to such details as muslin apron, black silk gown, and lace mittened hands, before he recovered power of speech.
"I—don't—know," he then said, letting each word drop slowly, weighted by its own uncertainty. "I guess I never thought of that. Of course, I'd find something for him to do. Besides, Molly will be independent of him. He doesn't care a red cent for her, and I'm sure she looks upon him more as a gaoler than a father. Oh! that'll be all right," he added cheerfully. "What a genius you have for inventing difficulties. Wait till they come. That's my idea. Dick and Molly, and you and I, have got to live our own lives. No doubt all sorts of things will crop up by way of excitement, or trouble. Little things of that sort mostly do go knocking around everybody's way. But, as I said before, thinking troubles don't save you from having them. I reckon by this time I've got far enough to claim the Inn and the coal mine, Dick Udale will have got hold of some other business. That place of his isn't what I should call lucrative. Seems to me he's not any too popular with customers."
"May I ask where Molly is all this time?" inquired the old lady suddenly.
"I left her at the Inn, of course."
"You both arrived last night?"
"That's so; just after dark."
"And stayed at the same Inn?"
"Why, of course. You don't suppose I'd leave the child all by herself in a strange place?"
"My dear boy, you are the most extraordinary young man I've ever come across."
"Now, look here, Miss Moneyash. In my country the first lesson a boy learns is to respect women. She learns alongside of him at school, plays alongside of him at play, works alongside of him at work. He grows up to regard her as a comrade, and trust her as an equal, as long as she'll let him. We're catholic and unprejudiced, and we don't go out of our way to say a girl's this, or a man's that, unless they prove themselves what they're called. I can see no more harm in my taking charge of Molly Udale and putting her up at a respectable Inn, and giving her over to your care, than if I were really her brother. I hadn't a wrong thought in anything I've done, and I expect people to believe I hadn't. If they can't, I'd say it's because their own minds aren't over and above clean. See?"
"I do see, and I think you're very hard to convince, but I admire you more than ever. I wish some of our English youths could be brought up on the same principles."
"Teach them to love nature, to fear God, and rely on themselves. That's what I learnt. It strikes me the Backwoods aren't such a bad school, after all."
"I think," said Miss Lavinia, presently, "that I'll relax my rule about visitors, and allow you to see Molly once a week—every Sunday. Will that suit you?"
"You're just too perfectly sweet! I have always felt there was something meant by our meeting like we did on the top of that coach going to Chatsworth. Now, I'm certain of it."
Again he extended his hand. He was brimming over with an enthusiasm that demanded forcible expression.
The little lady laughed, and rose to her feet. "My dear boy, you've such a bear's grip that I'll ask you to consider the next 'shake' as received. I'm going to put on my bonnet and walk down to the Inn and see Molly Udale. Then I shall bring her back here with me."
"Hush! And, curb your enthusiasm. I'm only an old woman who has missed much of life's joy. None greater than the lot that might have made her the mother of a son like you."
* * * * * *
The little old lady and the young man walked side by side down a sloping path that led from the Home to the town, some quarter of a mile distant. Miss Moneyash might well have been excused for pride in her country, for she had lived in one of the loveliest of its many lovely vales. The quaint little town itself lay between two valleys, and was surrounded by lofty, heather-clad hills, stretching mile upon mile, like guardians of the beauty below. Autumn had scarcely touched the trees with tint of change, and fields and orchards still held the mellow tributes of departing summer. The groups of houses in the miniature vales, the scattered farms, the quaint old churches lifting tower or spire protectingly above their special parish, all helped to complete a picture of rural beauty and rural peace essentially English. Here and there ruined hall, or castle keep, gave hint of feudal times, and stood out as prominent features in the landscape, while above all glowed the deep, soft blue of the sky, and the golden radiance of sunlight.
"You were right when you said your home would be hard to beat for beauty," said Rufus, his eyes sweeping from point to point. "This is just a living picture. Wish I could frame it and take it away out West when I go back. Everything's so big out there that one kind of loses the sense of proportion. A little gem of beauty like this spells 'home' and peace more'n forests, and cataracts, and mountains thousands of feet high. And you've lived here all your life?"
"Yes; and my people before me. I should like to take you to see some of the wonders round about. The caverns, the mines, the petrifying wells, the old ruined castles, the churches, some dating back to the Norman Conquest. By the way, that reminds me. Where do you intend to stay while you are here?"
"I left my traps at Manchester when I began this tramp of discovery. But that would mean a good bit of running to and fro now. I guess I'll find a lodging somewhere in the village yonder. This is as good a place as any for making my inquiries. Cheap, too, I reckon?"
She smiled. "Like John Gilpin's wife, you seem to have 'a frugal soul.' But you're none the worse for that. I think I know just the place to suit you. You can have room, board, and pleasant society, and all for a very moderate sum. You see that large house just outside the town? A grey stone house, with sycamore trees all round it, and a tower?"
"It's plain enough," he said, "to save more particular description."
"Well, the proprietor is a doctor who receives paying guests, some as patients, some as friends. There is a wonderful mineral spring attached to the property, very efficacious in certain complaints. You'd be very comfortable there, and I should have the pleasure of seeing you as often as you chose to come."
"It sounds very pleasant. But I guess I'm none too rich to afford such a luxurious home."
"You wouldn't consider two guineas a week too much for board and a room?"
"Too much! Jehosh—I beg your pardon. I should rather say I did not. And if there's one spot in the whole country I'd have picked out for preference, it's this. I sort of fell in love with it first time I came along."
"That's settled then. Dr. Quarn is a friend of mine, or rather, his wife is. She is quite young—but a great invalid. I often think she's not very happy; but then she's such a sufferer, one cannot wonder at that. I should think you would do her a great deal of good, do you know? You are so breezy, and full of life, and spirits and energy. I have a great belief in physical magnetism. The mind preys on the body; but if the mind is cheered, vivified, brightened, the body is correspondingly relieved. You do me good. I'm sure you'll do her the same."
"I guess you're putting me up to a new business if I'm to go round as a mind sure," laughed the young fellow gaily. "When shall I make tracks for the sanatorium, eh?"
"You mustn't call it that. He wouldn't like it. The name is Peak Edge Hall. I'll give you a note of introduction, and you'll find yourself treated like a friend. You could send for your baggage, couldn't you? You're not obliged to go to Manchester again?"
"Oh no. A letter could settle all that. I did want to see a lawyer, but I guess I'd better wait till I get those papers from America. What do you think?"
"I should certainly do so. It's no use going to a lawyer without some proof of what you claim, and why you claim it."
"Just my opinion. I do think, Miss Moneyash, that you're a right down sensible woman. I'm proud and pleased to have met you, and there's no one, excepting my own mother, with whom I'd sooner place Molly. Which brings us both to the old point, doesn't it? And here we are."
They had reached a quaint old street, closed in on either side by white or grey stone houses. Midway down it stood a little old-fashioned Inn, facing the market-place. A sign swung before it proclaiming it as "King o' the Peak." Standing in the porch, gazing down the street with curious and interested eyes, was Molly Udale. She did not move as she caught sight of her young champion and his companion. A sense of shame, of difference to even those of her sex and age who had walked this street, and laughed and chattered over their errands during the past hour of Rufus Myrthe's absence, was oppressing her for the first time in her life.
Miss Lavinia, as she preferred to be called, gave swift yet earnest criticism to the half-shy, half-sullen creature she had promised to befriend. Then she greeted her in the pleasant, homely fashion she used to all her protégées.
"I am sure," she said kindly, "that in a week or two you will be quite at home with us, and prove as useful and intelligent as my other girls have done."
"I canna promise aught," said Moll slowly; "but I mean ta try an' do what he wishes. He's th' only livin' soul as has spoke or treated me as I were summat more nor a log, or a stone. You dun knaw my life, ma'am, an' I canna tell 'ee, not yet. Ye mun let me do my best, an' not worrit an' badger me jist at first. If ye find I canna turn out what ye wishes, ye mun e'en send me back to th' old life. I canna say more."
Something very like tears stood in the little lady's dark, soft eyes.
"My dear," she said, "you need not fear for your peace or your comfort while you choose to stay with me. And now we have talked enough. Get your bundle together, and I will take you home. I like to call it that. It has been a home, and continues to be one, to creatures more desolate, more helpless than yourself."
"An' I kin see th' young man as has bin so kind to me?"
"One day a week he will come to see you."
The beautiful eyes grew radiant. "I can live fo' that," she said.
Late that afternoon Rufus Myrthe took his way through the one principal street of the little town, and, turning abruptly to the right, found a newly-made road sloping gradually towards that old building to which he carried an introduction.
A large iron gateway, flanked by massive stone pillars, led into the grounds. They were well wooded, and laid out with shrubberies and flower beds, headed by a tennis lawn, and branching here and there into winding paths, commanding a view of the quaint old town and the circling line of purple-clad hills.
The young fellow looked round approvingly. "Miss Moneyash knows a good thing when she sees it," he observed. "I'm not sorry I gave the Inn the go-by. This is just the style of thing I like."
He rang at the door, which opened into a wide, comfortably-furnished hall, at present unoccupied. He handed his letter to the servant, and sat down on one of the scattered lounges to await an answer.
It appeared in the person of Dr. Quarn himself.
Rufus Myrthe was conscious of two vivid sensations at sight of the owner of the establishment. The first, surprise; the second, repulsion.
The surprise was occasioned by the very remarkable good looks of the man; the second by a dislike of the very exaggerated quality of those same looks. The hair was so very black and glossy, the complexion so very ivory-clear in its pallor, the lips so deeply crimson, the features so exquisitely cut, the figure so lithe and supple. Any of these things, taken singly, would have been sufficient stock-in-trade for the average man, but this medical Adonis possessed them all. Added to which his speaking voice was so suave and pleasant that Rufus Myrthe felt his own tones aggressively loud and coarse by comparison.
"He minds me of a great big tiger cat purring around, with sheathed claws, ready to scratch or to kill at a moment's notice," thought the young fellow, what time he answered his host's questions, and was receiving assurance of the pleasure his intended visit would afford Peak Edge Hall and its inmates.
Then the doctor informed him they dined at seven, evening dress being left to the convenience or discretion of the guests. After which he rang and desired an elderly maidservant (there were no men in attendance) to show the young American to his room.
He followed the woman up two flights of stairs, and was then ushered into a good-sized, well-furnished apartment. The square window had a deep seat, and commanded the now familiar view of vale and hill, as well as of a portion of the hall grounds. There was an old-fashioned, old-world appearance about the room, and its contents that appealed strongly to the American sense of improvement. It was so sternly indifferent to modern systems of lighting, sleeping, or furnishing. The old-fashioned bed was curtained with faded damask; the old-fashioned presses opened out of the wall; the oak chairs had wide rush seats; the writing table stood on carved massive legs that would have rejoiced the eye of a collector. A mirror of true old Chippendale pattern stood on the chintz-draped dressing-table, which was matched by a chintz-covered chair. A few old prints decorated the plain white-washed, wood-panelled walls, and short curtains of the same large-flowered chintz draped the window. A book-case, a bath, and a washstand completed the furniture.
Having finished his survey, Rufus Myrthe unslung his satchel, and took from thence his scanty toilet articles.
"Evening dress optional, is it? Well, that's a good thing, for I don't possess any," he thought, whistling cheerily the while, the 'Old Folks at Home.' "Wonder if any of the people staying here will favour me with their acquaintance, seeing I've neither clothes, nor wealth, nor title to favour. Seems as if I can't furnish any line of goods that spells appearance!"
He laughed as if the joke pleased him. Then glanced at his watch. "Six o'clock. A whole hour before dinner. Guess I'll go and explore a bit. I'm not the sort to sit still in an armchair, doing nothing, while sixty minutes of good square time is waiting to be utilised."
He dived once more into the satchel for a handkerchief and a clean collar, which he laid out as his sole contribution to evening dress. As he was closing the bag, a small sheet of paper, covered with minute writing fluttered near the snap. Carelessly he took it and glanced at the contents.
It seems to him afterwards as if some power, apart from and beyond explanation, had held him motionless as he read the brief lines. They betrayed a whole history, or rather gave such a clue to tragic incidents that imagination could frame its meaning.
He let the paper flutter to the ground. Into his clear grey eyes came a look of loathing and disgust. Then he snatched the paper from the ground, and thrust it into one of the pockets of the satchel.
"And Molly has the rest! Molly has the whole history!" he thought. "And I've been the one to help her to its knowledge! What blind fools we are! What blind fools of fate—or chance!"
He locked the bag savagely, and threw himself into the deep old chair he had despised a few moments earlier. Leaning his head on his hands he gave himself up to thought.
His clean, honest young mind tried to regain its balance after that recoil from guilty shame, and a guilty secret. Tried to resume a sure footing, and grow reconciled to the revelation of sin that had hitherto been only a name. But the effort was a severe tax on his moral energies. A demand on resources of whose very existence he had been unaware.
Had he read the whole story he might have judged it more leniently; but a bald, ugly fact, set forth in bald, ugly words, unextenuated by plea of any sort, naturally looked the unsightly thing it was.
It seemed unfortunate that the one scrap of paper left behind out of that bundle should be just the very worst and most horrible of its confessions. Yet so fate had decreed.
"There seems no way out of it," he muttered, resentful of his own helplessness. "I can't ask for those papers back, and before three months are over our heads she'll know."
He sprang to his feet and paced the room.
Suddenly, the soft, increasing clamour of a gong from below sounded through the house.
He listened, and as he listened the remembrance of present life, present duties, rushed back.
He tried to banish this unexpected horror. To think that it concerned others, not himself. He even for a moment contemplated the possibility of getting those confessions back from Molly, and leaving her in blissful ignorance of his own discovery.
"But then she might learn it some other way," he reflected. "I suppose it's true; it must be true. No woman in her senses would write such a thing if it wasn't."
He threw off coat and collar, and dipped his burning face into the cold water of his basin, splashing and cooling it, until reaction set in and his head ceased to ache. Then he made his simple toilet and went downstairs.
Lamps were lit on the landing below, and he looked carelessly at the rows of doors. One stood partly open. It showed a sitting-room, in which a bright fire burned. It was so quaint, and pretty, and dainty a nest that he paused in the doorway, and took a long and interested survey. Suddenly, from somewhere within, a voice sounded. A voice whose plaintive music thrilled to his very heart.
"Come in, if you like," it said.
The young fellow glanced about the fire-lit room. His eyes fell on a couch in a somewhat shadowy corner; the back was towards him. He could distinguish something white and fleecy, and there stole to his senses an odour faintly fragrant. Never in any after time would that faint scent fail to bring back this moment and this scene.
Like one half awake he crossed the room in the direction of the couch, and, as he reached it, stood suddenly still. The face looking up at him was such a one as had filled dreams where goddess and angel breathed magic hints of womanhood. The contrast between it and every other type, or form, of feminine beauty he had hitherto met, struck on his senses with a sort of wonder, not unmixed with awe.
The woman rested against pillows, scarce whiter than the marble of her own face. Her fair hair, rich and bright of hue, was swept loosely back from her brow. Long curved lashes fringed her up-raised eyes, dark-hued, velvety as pansies; expressing the meaning of the flower, as well as its hue. Those eyes—mysterious, deep and hauntingly sad, searched his face, and found it pleasant. The faintest hint of a smile parted her lips, showing a tiny cleft, exquisite as a dimple, in one white cheek.
"I think you are our new guest, are you not?" went on the sweet voice. "Miss Moneyash told me about you long before she sent you here. I should have known you anywhere from her description."
Rufus Myrthe was not given to shyness or reticence as a rule, yet now his tongue could only stammer something foolish and evasive; his mind seemed only capable of taking in the strange and spirituelle beauty that centred in and around this room and its occupant.
Again she smiled, and moved slightly on her pillows.
"There are ten minutes yet before dinner," she went on. "Sit down on that chair and talk to me. I am such a recluse. I rarely have strength to go downstairs, or mix with the people who fill the house. And it is only occasionally I let anyone into my sanctum here. But this is one of my good days. I am glad of that. I wanted so much to see you."
Mechanically he muttered that the pleasure was his; mechanically he took the chair to which her transparent hand pointed. The flames were alternating between rise and fall. Now throwing a gleam of ruddy light over the shadowy figure on the couch. Now dropping into a semi-mystic glow, that left face and form vaguely defined. The next moments were dream-like.
He heard his own voice speaking in lowered tone; he felt himself groping, as it were, in the sudden darkness of abashed senses for some topic of interest, something that would lift him above this boundary of stupidity; and all the time he knew he only wanted that voice to speak on, and on; only longed to drink in its lulling music as the most exquisite draught life had held to his lips.
Again the gong sounded. With its dying echoes there stole, soft-footed, into the room the lithe figure of the doctor. He was in evening dress. He looked handsomer than ever; and yet, to Rufus Myrthe, more than ever repulsive.
A warm, lovely glow, whether of the firelight or of sudden pleasure, illumined the white face on the pillows.
"You see, Felix, I have made friends with Lavinia's young American," she said. "We always call you that. I hope you don't mind?" she added to Rufus Myrthe.
"Not in the least," he said. "I would not pay my country such a poor compliment as to be ashamed of my own advertisement of it."
"And your people are rather good at that," remarked the doctor. "It has helped to make you the great and wonderful nation you are."
Rufus Myrthe was not keen on shades of sarcasm. He took the compliment literally.
"Well, I reckon we don't lack official acknowledgment anywhere," he said, "though we mayn't be a shining success, taking us all round. Perhaps you've been in the States yourself, Dr. Quarn?"
"Yes; many years ago."
"He qualified there," said the soft voice of the invalid.
Rufus looked surprised. He had heard opinions of American degrees, and the sort of status their owners possessed among members of the profession on the other side of the water.
"My wife means I took one or two unimportant degrees," interposed the doctor hastily. Then, as if to change the subject, he added, "You are looking better this evening. Patience. Do you feel equal to coming down, or shall I send you up some dinner?"
"I guess Mrs. Quarn looks as if she needed a good many dinners, and any amount of feeding up," interposed Rufus Myrthe, finding tongue now that a third person had relieved that novel sense of embarrassment.
The lovely invalid smiled. "I am a somewhat troublesome patient, I fear. But my appetite is the only capricious thing about me. With everything to tempt me, I yet loathe food. I have done my best to overcome the repugnance, but in vain."
"Mrs. Quarn has such an extremely delicate digestion," explained her husband, suavely. "But this is not a subject to interest you, Mr. Myrthe. And I'm due at my post in the dining-room. Let me show you the way."
He turned towards the door, yet not before Rufus had had time to see the faint gesture of that lovely hand outstretched and disregarded. Not before he caught the changed expression of the face, grown wistful now, and sad.
"She loves him, and he doesn't care; doesn't understand; doesn't appreciate."
So he summed up the relations between this strange pair, as he followed his host down the shallow staircase and into the brilliantly lighted dining-room.
Quite a number of people of all sorts and conditions of good or ill-health, beauty and ugliness, were straggling into seats, and moving and altering chairs. Most of them were women.
Dr. Quarn passed hurriedly down the room, and took his place at the head of the long table. A servant conducted Rufus to his seat, which, he was glad to find, was far removed from that of the doctor. Beside him sat a vivacious lady of some forty summers, who had vainly tried to convince unappreciative men that gay and giddy youth should be rigorously evaded for the superior attractions of sense and experience, and an affection that only asked to be claimed. In spite of hints and efforts however the fair Arabella Skelmore had not succeeded in capturing any male heart to which her appeals had been directed. Her glance fell now with much favour on the handsome young giant whose chair stood beside her own. She had already learnt his name from the paper attached to his serviette, and his nationality from the first sound of his voice, in thanking the neat maid who had piloted him to his place.
She suffered him to finish his soup before commencing overtures, in the shape of a remark on the weather.
Rufus greeted her and it with one of his frank, direct glances. "Well," he agreed, "I've sampled a good many specimens since I've been over here. Rainy days, misty days, cold days, that make you think winter's stolen a march upon the fall, and got ahead of it. But when the sun does make up his mind to give you a real good time, he doesn't go half-heartedly about it. That I will say."
"You are from America, I see," observed the lady, with her friendliest smile.
"That's so. I reckon half a dozen words give me away. Still, it's so easy to start from that point as another. This is my first visit to this country. I have been to London and most of your great manufacturing districts. I think your country beautiful. Your climate is as uncertain as a woman's temper, and Derbyshire the loveliest of all your funny, chopped-up bits of land, that minds me most of a child's puzzle map."
Miss Skelmore giggled delightedly.
"Your people have such a charmingly original way of expressing themselves. Yes, I suppose England does seem small after the great American continent."
"Well, I've sampled Kentucky, Virginia, California; had a spell of prairie life, cowboy, buffalo-hunting, trapping, the Rockies, and all that. I reckon one can turn round in those places without falling over one's neighbour's landmark, or trespassing on his back premises."
Miss Skelmore's delight became almost hysterical. "Oh! How very interesting! How romantic, and you look, if you'll excuse my saying it, so young, so very young, to have gone through so much."
"I'm twenty-one," he said, with the same enchanting frankness that had captivated her maiden fancy. "But I'd got hold of as much schooling as I cared to swallow before I was twelve, and then I a kind of tired of kicking my heels at a desk, and adding up rows of figures, and playing tricks on the boss who was cramming us with all the rot that had never been any use to himself. So I just started life on my own account. Chose the adventurous line at first, you know, by way of getting my hand into the other."
"And I suppose you had a great many adventures," she simpered, formulating in her own mind a new hero on the pattern of Captain Mayne Reid and Buffalo Bill.
He finished his plate of roast mutton before answering. It was many days since he had had such a good and satisfactory repast, and he paid it its full compliment of appreciation.
"That depends on what you'd call adventurous," he answered at last. "Uncommon good beef and mutton you do breed in this country, Mrs.——, I didn't catch hold of your name, by the way?"
"Skelmore—Miss Skelmore," she simpered.
"Thank you, Miss Skelmore. Mine is Myrthe, spelt with a 'y' and an 'e.' Queer sort of name. But my people started life here first. Had property somewhere round about these valleys, and that's how I come by it."
"It has a Dar-byshire flavour, I think," murmured his fair neighbour, refusing chicken with an air of magnified indifference.
"How little you do eat!" he said, which was exactly what she wanted him to say. "Doesn't this mountain air kind of sharpen your appetite? It does mine."
There was no doubt about that. Even the events of the last two eventful hours did not seem to affect his appreciation of good food, well cooked and well served.
"I am not a great eater," said Miss Skelmore, with an air of gentle deprecation. "In fact, I am staying here on account of my health. Dr. Quarn is so clever, and the waters here are so beneficial. I've seen the most marvellous cures."
"Oh, it is a sanatorium, then?"
"He doesn't call it that. He objects to a prefix that would make it seem an invalid resort. It is really quite a home, where every comfort is obtainable, combined with treatment and medical advice, if necessary."
"It's a pity he can't treat his own wife!" said Rufus bluntly. "If charity starts at home, so ought medical proficiency."
"There's an old proverb says; 'Physician, heal thyself,'" observed Miss Skelmore, playfully. "And yet even doctors die. Why not their wives?"
He looked at her somewhat sternly. The suggestion had an unpleasantness that gave temporary check to his appetite.
"Have you seen Mrs. Quarn?" he asked presently. "Isn't she just lovely?"
"Oh, I don't know that I should call her that," answered the fair conversationalist somewhat less amiably. "Very fragile, very sickly; deformed, I believe; but, of course, her manner is perfectly sweet. And she's so accomplished. She was an only child and an heiress when Dr. Quarn met her. I think her so fortunate to have found a husband so devoted and so clever."
"Well, I guess he's as much right to be considered fortunate as she has! He's had the use of her money, and such a beautiful creature wouldn't need to have gone a-begging for appreciation very long."
Miss Skelmore bridled aggressively. She was one of those women who never like to hear her own sex praised by a man. She occasionally praised them herself, but only for qualities that her listeners knew they lacked.
"Dear me, Mr. Myrthe, you are quite enthusiastic!" she exclaimed. "May I ask how long you have known Mrs. Quarn?"
"Only since I came here."
"Rather a short space of time in which to form an opinion."
"Perhaps it is," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps it is. Well, there, let's move off to new ground. Tell me about some of the people staying here. What do you do to amuse yourselves?"
"Oh!" she said, with an arch glance. "Of course, we have to depend on one another a good deal, and on our respective talents. We get up musical evenings and occasional dances! Then we play progressive whist, or round games, or 'nap' for penny points. Nothing alarming, you know. There's a billiard-room, a tennis-court, and a bowling-green. In fact, all sorts of ways of passing the time. Sometimes we make up parties for the coaches, or char-a-bancs, and go for the day to some of the places of interest in the neighbourhood. Oh, I assure you, you won't find it dull here."
"I'm pretty certain of that," he answered, throwing a comprehensive glance over the assemblage. "Say, Miss Skelmore, can you tell me who that is opposite? Sort of bald-headed chicken she looks! Feathers plucked and quills left behind, don't you know?"
Miss Skelmore giggled with delight. "How quaint you are, Mr. Myrthe! Do you know, she has always reminded me of that, but I couldn't have put it so humorously! Her name is Miss Topliss. She's very rich. She's here with a maid, and has a private sitting-room. She's undergoing special treatment for neuritis."
"Neuritis! A sort of rheumatism of the nerves, I believe. Poor thing, it's terrible to be so afflicted, don't you think so?"
"Terrible," he said gravely. "Let's hope Dr. Quarn will cure her. Miss Topless did you say? Seems kind of appropriate, doesn't it?"
The fair Arabella surveyed the opposite lady's scant locks, and generous scalp view with ecstatic appreciation.
"Topliss," she corrected. "But how clever you are, hitting people off like that. Only you must promise to be kind to poor little me, or I shall feel quite alarmed."
His clear and candid eyes just glanced over her dyed golden locks, her carefully-assorted complexion, her elaborate figure.
"I guess anybody would be kind to you," he said gravely. And what he meant, or what he thought, the fair Arabella could not imagine. Which was, perhaps, fortunate.
He kept her at the task of describing the inmates of the Hall, and their various qualifications, until the end of dinner.
That over, the guests scattered, in groups or couples, into the drawing-room beyond. A place compounded of chairs and couches, that spelt comfort in every nook and corner.
Rufus Myrthe was piloted thither by his new acquaintance. Finding the room at present in possession of the fairer members of the community the young man stood somewhat bashfully in the doorway, and decided to "make tracks" for the smoking-room. He communicated this intention in his usual direct fashion, and was turning away, when the action brought him face to face with the occupant of a chair that was silently rolling on its tyred wheels towards the drawing-room. He started and drew aside. Then burst forth. "You've come down? Oh, that's magnificent! I'm right glad to see you! Here, miss, let me do that."
He seized the handle of the chair before the stylish maid knew what he was about. "You tell me where you want to go, Mrs. Quarn, and I'll have you there less time than you count. Or stay, p'raps, you like going slow; just you say, and I'll meet your wishes. Don't think of being reserved or distrustful with me. There's nothing on earth I like better than helping anyone who's sick or weak. Not that you're going to be either one or other very long. I've got ideas on the subject of health that would give any doctor points and beat him." He had turned the chair and was wheeling it up and down the hall, talking vigorously the while. "I've studied in the greatest college that was ever started for the good of man," he went on. "You and I'll have a talk, Mrs. Quarn, and you just tell me what's the real trouble. When the body takes a crank it's only to show that it wants something. Well, you've just got to find out what that something is, and give it either to brain, or blood, or stomach, and it gets all right again. It's perfectly simple. I've cured Indians and white folk scores of times. I'm sure I could cure you."
"Why are you sure?" she asked, softly, looking up at his face, as he leant over the back of the chair in a momentary pause.
"Why?" His breath seemed to catch. That ineffable exquisite sense of a new meaning in life, a new consciousness of womanhood, swept over him, and left him once again awkward and embarrassed. "I ... I don't know why," he faltered slowly; "unless it's because I want to, more than I've ever wanted to do anything in all my life!"
When Rufus Myrthe sought his room that night, he looked at himself in the glass with a vague sense of something lost and something gained by that personality which he recognised as—himself. For, as he knew, no one ever really sees themselves in life, more especially when motion, or circumstances, give a new meaning to facial expression. We behold a reflection in a mirror that faces us under trying ordeals of shaving, hairdressing, hat-fixing, and full-dress, or un-dress occasions, but we never see what we really are, what we really mean, to less familiar eyes.
This present Rufus Myrthe proceeded to divest himself of what he called his "tramp slops," and to restlessly promenade his apartment like a sentry on duty, what time he passed in review the events of the day, and the significance attachable to them. He had a peculiar habit of marshalling facts; docketing them, and laying them by in mental pockets, so that on any special occasion he could bring them out and re-peruse their meaning. But for once he found the task unpleasing and unsatisfactory. He was no longer on pleasant terms with life, as life had hitherto shown itself.
Complications, embarrassments, doubts, had left ugly marks on a hitherto clean slate. He felt compelled to look both the ugliness and unpleasantness in the face, and weigh their meaning in the balance. He was in that primeval state of emotion when human passion wears an aspect of divinity, and human crime the stamp of the devil's own die. Both were exaggerated by an intensity of feeling, and neither one nor other had the serious importance to the world at large that he imagined they had for himself. Youth trips gaily along the "primrose path" till the day and the hour the sphinx-like figure of fate faces it at the highway. Then it learns that it may not pass on until a riddle is propounded and answered. If the guess be right a free road lies before the fortunate traveller, but if wrong there follows slow torture, cruel pains, the bearing of a burden for ever pressing on weary shoulders, bowing down youth to grey, cold manhood, robbing its jaunty step of lightness, its laughing lips of mirth. Nor does even the successful guessor quite escape. There are rough places on that high road, and the stones hurt tender feet, and the miles are longer there than they seemed in the pleasant paths and lanes to which there is no return. For the sphinx-like figure bars the way back, even as it barred the advance. And the traveller has to march on and on, though now he is no longer alone. The high road is crowded, and he touches a hand here, and it bids him stay, and he gazes into eyes there, and they hold him bond-slave, and sometimes he tarries so long that he cares no more to advance, or seek the goal whither that long road leads. Thus he stands or loiters, till one day a grey-veiled figure touches him on the arm, he starts, looking under the shrouding veil, sees but the empty skull and eyeless sockets of death. Then the long-forgotten meaning of the riddle he had guessed comes back to his memory; but only for one brief moment. For the grey figure throws its shrouding veil over him. They walk side by side a little way further, only a little way now, while the hollow echoes of his stumbling feet seem but to cry—"Too late! too late!"
Rufus Myrthe ceased that restless pacing at last, and stood at the open window, gazing over the shadowy trees to where the moon was slowly sailing westwards, her bright track followed by a procession of ghostly clouds. Involuntarily his thoughts turned to Molly. Was she happy, content, safe?
Had he brought some good into her life? Anything approaching this sudden, subtle, wholly inexplicable joy that had stolen into his own. Fervently he hoped it. A dark and terrible mystery lay before her, to which, all unwittingly, he held the clue. But if, even for a little space, she were happy, it was something gained, something to which he had helped her.
A wonderful sense of pity and of tenderness swept over him now. There was not an atom of mawkish sentimentality in his whole nature. His feelings, like himself, were strong and true, but to-night he had stood for a moment on enchanted ground, and the glamour lingered still. The feelings of pity aroused by the girl and the woman were totally unlike, though he was not aware of the fact. The cold voice of Providence gave no warning. The first signal post of Experience had failed to direct his steps in the safe way. He had passed it, blindly, and now had forgotten its existence. Everything in the last few hours had been either chaotic or coloured by newly awakened sympathies. His heart rushed in a wild gallop towards possibilities that by wiser minds would have been labelled "Impossible."
He was a piece of genuine and massive simplicity. The sort of nature of which Life delights to make trial, and of whom Fate delights to take toll.
Unaware now of the meaning of this new and sweet content with life, ignorant of the task he had set himself by his self-appointed guardianship of another entity, he turned away from the window and the moonlit loveliness it framed, and cast his distraught wits and tangled fancies into the realms of unreality offered by dreams.
* * * * * *
Before three days had passed there was no more popular inmate of the Peak Hall establishment than Rufus Myrthe.
By that time his luggage had arrived, and the possession of a black coat made a happy compromise between regulation swallow-tail (which he observed was too Christy Minstrelised a garment for his fancy) and the free and easy tweeds which he specially favoured. He learnt tennis and bowls after one day's practice. What games of cards he did not know were insignificant by comparison with those he did; and as these possessed the charm of novelty—besides offering an entertainment of American humour—poker, and euchre, and "Black Maria" became far more popular than whist or vingt-et-un.
Every evening between the signals for dressing and dinner he spent in Mrs. Quarn's pretty boudoir, talking to her in his breezy, boyish fashion, and happier than any king, could he but bring a smile to her pensive lips, or a look of delighted interest into her lovely eyes. But underneath this surface lay the young fellow's whole moral and mental nature was undergoing a transformation. Thrown for the first time in his rough and ready life among more complex and less intelligible forces than he had hitherto faced, he was often at a loss to adjust himself to altered conditions. Popularity was no uncommon experience. Given youth, good looks, the physique of an athlete, and a temper unruffable by feminine caprices, it was little wonder that the owner of such gifts should be a universal favourite.
The various members of Dr. Quarn's establishment were unanimous in his praises. The fair Arabella, who was inclined to claim him as her discovery, soon learnt that exclusive friendship had no meaning whatever in his eyes. He was as polite, as cordial, as obliging to one invalid or one guest as to another. The first evening that had been distinguished by what was called "An Entertainment" found him ready and helpful as no member of the committee had ever proved. He confessed himself as devoid of accomplishments; yet he sang a nigger song to a banjo accompaniment that literally brought the house down and a furious demand for more. He told stories of the Backwoods and of Kentucky farm life that absolutely convulsed his audience with mirth. He declined to dance with any partner, but gave a "coon step" and "cake walk" that were pronounced the success of the evening. But no one among his audience ever guessed that he played buffoon for one person only in the whole assemblage. That, for him, no applause had been so sweet, no triumph so delicious, as one trill of rippling laughter that came from an invalid chair in a corner of the room; the chair on which the fragile figure of Patience Quarn lay back amongst her cushions. He had only seen her, felt her, spoken to her, the whole time of the performance. All other faces and forms were dream-like and indistinct. And as she watched, and smiled, and laughed, she, too, breathed a new atmosphere, and for a time forgot pain and weariness and the sad guerdon of a generous love.
Her husband was sitting some distance away. He noted her animated face, the flush that lent so vivid a beauty to her usually colourless cheek, the pretty peal of laughter, musical as a child's, that greeted the young American's efforts. His face darkened, a look where hate and fear mingled flashed into the glance he cast at the new arrival. From underneath his lowered lids he watched him as a tiger watches prey. The set teeth and contracted muscles of his face altered all its surface good looks, and for a moment it was hideous with devil-born rage. But no one noticed him. All eyes were fixed on the handsome young giant who was dancing the ridiculous negro steps, his lithe, athletic figure a study in black and white, for he had discarded his coat.
The impetuous cry that re-demanded another dance and song irritated the doctor's unstrung nerves. He rose to his feet and pushed back his chair.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said; "much as I regret to put an end to so refined and unexpected a performance as that of Mr. Myrthe's, I have to remind you that this is Saturday night, and of the rule of the establishment that all lights must be out by 12 o'clock. It is now half-past eleven."
There was a moment's regretful silence. Then chairs were pushed back, and, one after another, the strangely assorted guests rose and bade host and hostess good-night. Rufus Myrthe lingered behind. He wanted to offer his services in wheeling the invalid chair to Mrs. Quarn's suite of rooms. But as he approached, the doctor strode quickly to her side and laid his hand upon the propeller.
"Good-night, Mr. Myrthe," he said, suavely. "You must be tired after your very remarkable exertions."
"Tired!" The young man laughed aloud. "I guess, Dr. Quarn, I've yet to learn the meaning of that word. Can't I lend a hand at transporting your wife? It's a privilege she's allowed me most evenings."
"Thank you, no," answered Dr. Quarn, coldly. "I can do all that is necessary."
The young man gave him a quick, surprised glance. Then he flushed in a foolish, school-boy fashion. "I'm sure I'd no intention of intruding on your privileges," he said.
The doctor waved him aside with an impertinent gesture, and set the chair in motion. Rufus stepped back out of the way. His eyes met those violet ones, that meant for him all the soul-mystery of Patience Quarn. He read in their swift glance something he had never read before—Fear!
A restless night, broken by troubled dreams, brought Rufus Myrthe to a sense of warm daylight, of clamouring bells set going by clerical insistence on the duty of eight o'clock services. He opened his eyes drowsily. Then sprang up alert and wide-awake. "It's Sunday, by all that's holy! I am to see Molly to-day."
The first gladness of that thought passed away as his toilet progressed. The memory of that scrap of paper, hidden now in his despatch box, returned from the region of undesirable memories to which it had been relegated. With it there came also the recollection of his sojourn at the "Headless Woman," and the semi-tragic incidents following closely upon his visit.
To banish the discomfort inseparable now from retrospection, he hurried out of doors and into the grounds of the Hall. As yet he had only explored them with a view of testing their capacity for various forms of recreation. Now he strode rapidly past the ornamental divisions, and penetrated into a wilder and more remote region, to which a barricade of thorny bushes, and tangled bracken, offered a mute announcement that to female minds had spelt "impassable."
A leap and a plunge brought him into a cleared space beyond the barrier, and he found himself facing a curious mass of broken rock and stone. They had evidently constituted some sort of building once, for portions of the stone were smooth and slab-like, and a ruined wall could be traced at intervals. Behind the broken fragments a large rock towered, that might well have formed the natural protection of a stronghold. It seemed to look down pityingly on all it had once defended, left now to the careless gaze of speculation, and the rough embrace of briar and bush.
Rufus Myrthe, after a comprehensive glance, moved a little to the right of the scattered boulders. As he did so his foot caught in a bit of uneven ground, and he stumbled, and would have fallen but for a sudden clutch at a bush near by. It steadied his balance at the expense of itself. For Rufus Myrthe's strength sometimes surprised him into unexpected feats, and the present occasion was one of repeated instances.
He looked at the bush and its earth-covered roots with apologetic amusements. "Sorry, I'm sure. But I'll re-plant you, and there'll be no harm done."
As he did so his eye fell on the disturbed ground. He saw lying there a small glass phial, green in colour. It lay as if thrown among the bushes by some careless hand.
The incident was insignificant, especially in an establishment where medicines were the order of the day. He kicked the bottle aside and began to replant the uprooted shrub. To do so he took a stick and dug the hole a little deeper. It struck against something hard. He tossed aside the earth, and he saw before him another green bottle of similar appearance to the first. He took it up and examined it. At the same moment he remembered how very easily the shrub had come up in his grasp. "I guess there's some meaning in this," he said, thoughtfully. "Who is so keen on burying or hiding their physic bottles, I wonder?"
He bent down and secured the first bottle, and turned it over and over in his hand. It bore no label. The cork was still inserted. It was stamped with a green seal. "Well, anyway, it's queer manure for a holly bush," he reflected.
He removed the cork and then sniffed cautiously at the little phial. A faint, curious odour greeted his nostrils. It was one that carried him back on a sudden wave of memory. For scent has one peculiar quality. It can recall a scene, a place, an incident, with the swiftness of an electric shock.
Something flashed back to Rufus Myrthe's brain in that moment, at once startling and disturbing. He still held one bottle, but his eyes rested on the other. Into them crept a look of gathering horror. Then a spasm of anger shook him, and he flung the fragile thing aside and heard it crash to pieces against the great stone boulders.
"What's come to me? What sort of fool's play is this?" he cried, with sudden savagery. "Am I never to get away from mysteries and suspicions?"
He stooped to take up the second phial and send it to share the company of the first; but, even as he seized it, exasperation changed to fear.
"If it means anything I can easily find out," he said, slowly. "If they are hidden here for a purpose, and I learnt who had hidden them, it might be a clue to the reason. Is it only a coincidence that I should remember those words about 'qualifying in America,' and then be reminded of the first and only time I was on an American jury? If so it's—damnable!"
He seized the remaining bottle and thrust it back into its hiding-place, covering it again with loose earth, and finally replanting the bush as he had found it. As he finished his task a sound boomed out over the quiet air. It startled him as if his employment had been guilty. Yet it was only the gong summoning the inmates of the Hall to breakfast.
He gave a last look round the place, then made his way back to where he had forced an entrance. He hurried towards the house, only delaying to wash the dirt and dust off his hands before entering the dining-room. Then he made his way to his usual seat beside Miss Skelmore, exchanging greetings by the way in a fashion more mechanical than was usual.
His fair companion was in an elaborate Sunday toilet that represented a chromatic scale of colour, vivid and unbecoming. "Of course, you are going to church," she said, glancing coyly at him.
"I hadn't exactly thought about it," he answered. He was wondering whether Molly would be taken there, and what time she would expect to see him.
"Oh, do come," entreated Arabella. "Such a delicious old world building. The tower is fourteenth or sixteenth century—I forget which—and darling gargoyles on each side of it! And sweet old oak pews, and the quaintest pulpit. And the dear vicar is as old-world as the place; like Father Christmas, I always think. And he still uses firstly, and secondly, and thirdly in his sermons. So antiquated, you know, but so refreshing after the High Church preaching, which, I always think, resembles a race against time. Gabble, gabble, and then a sign of the cross and the collection bags. Dear old Parson Moon has no collection and no bags. Such a nice change. Because one really begins to think one pays twice over for one's seat, and then if the offertory isn't large enough the vicar says such insulting things next Sunday. It makes one quite uncomfortable."
"I guess I haven't troubled church or parson much in my time," observed Rufus. "Out West, you know, we've about five hundred and fifty-nine different sorts of religion, and each sort is the right and only one, according to its samplers. So I concluded it was the best to have none."
"Oh; but that is going quite to the other extreme. Surely, you're not an Atheist, Mr. Myrthe, or one of those dreadful Free-thinking people, who say they're a law unto themselves and generally end in a prison or a penitentiary!"
"No, Miss Skelmore. I'm neither without belief, nor without religion. But I reckon that's nothing to do with church-going."
"But you'll come this morning. Do say yes, just to please me?"
He laughed good-humouredly. "Well, if you put it like that! Of course, I couldn't disoblige a lady. Does Dr. Quarn attend service?" he suddenly asked.
"Oh, yes—always. It would be such a bad example, you know, if he didn't."
"No, poor thing, she never goes. I suppose she's sensitive, and wouldn't like to be wheeled into the church in that chair and left in the aisle for everyone to stare at."
He was silent. But his eyes wore a troubled expression, and, travelling up the long table, rested a moment on the handsome face of the proprietor of the Hall.
"I wish I could like him," he was thinking. "But it seems no use to try; and now, since this fearless suspicion has entered my head, I just can't believe he's cut on the square. I hate that soft, suave way of his. It gets round women, I suppose, and sick folk. They all seem to adore him. But if I tried to weariness I'd never be able to make a friend of that man!"
* * * * * *
An hour later he was sitting in the old church beside Miss Skelmore and Miss Topliss, who had linked herself to the party, as Rufus glanced round at the scantily-filled pews, he saw Lavinia Moneyash enter, and following her, two by two, came some dozen or more girls, all neatly dressed in stuff gowns and small, close bonnets. They were marshalled into their seats by a matronly person, in whose charge they appeared to be.
His eye detected Molly Udale immediately, and with a sense of wonder he noted the difference that dress and discipline had already made in her appearance. She had not perceived him, being too puzzled and too shy to do aught save follow her companions into the pew set apart for them. Her position there left her profile only visible. That, and the knot of her rich and ruddy hair, chained his attention and gave his thoughts wide scope for rambling during the first part of the service.
He bent his head in an attitude of devotion, but he was asking himself why Destiny had set him here, and set that girl where she so meekly knelt, and chosen to knit the tangled threads of her life into the strong and hitherto common-place strands of his.
The sight of her brought back the memory of a discovered and disgraceful secret. She disturbed and troubled him, and yet he felt he could not have acted differently even had he known of the result.
"Seems I've only taken her out of one mess to plunge her into another," he thought. And then the warning "thirdly, my dear brethren," fell on his inattentive ear, and he knew that in a few moments he must greet and speak to the girl, and yet all the time hide from her what chance had revealed to him.
As he followed Miss Skelmore's lurid costume down the aisle he lost sight of the inmates of the home. At the church door Miss Lavinia herself greeted him. She had been afraid of an impetuosity that might lead to trouble with other members of the flock.
"Please," she entreated, laying a detaining lavender-gloved hand on the young man's arm. "Please, my dear Don Quixote, don't rush after her now. Let her get home first. Will you come back to lunch? I have been longing to see you. You may have the afternoon with your protégé, if you wish. She is really a very good girl. Much better than I expected, and takes to discipline with surprising amiability."
"I am glad to hear that," he answered. "Yes, of course I'll come back to lunch. I've so much to tell you that I feel as if twelve hours talking wouldn't get at the bottom of it!"
An imperative cough at his elbow suddenly recalled his attention to the fact that Miss Skelmore was standing by his side in evident expectation of escort for the return journey.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, I quite forgot you," he explained in his cool way. "You see, Miss Skelmore, I'm due at Miss Moneyash's every Sunday while I'm here, so I'll have to say good-bye. Perhaps you would catch up alongside of Miss Topliss if you hurried a bit, or—there's Dr. Quarn."
The alteration in his voice almost surprised himself. The doctor was greeting Miss Lavinia, answering her inquiries about his wife. Rufus Myrthe's ears strained to catch the suave, well-modulated tones.
"Brighter . . . and more cheerful. Oh, yes, decidedly that. But no material change in the other symptoms, I regret to say. No—material—change."
Those words of Dr. Quarn's echoed and re-echoed in Rufus Myrthe's ears as he walked beside Miss Lavinia through the quaint High-street and up the sheltered, winding road that led to the house. So preoccupied and thoughtful did he seem that his companion wondered what had happened to cause such a change. But she had that rare gift of sympathy which can understand silence as well as speech, and she asked no questions, though there was a tranquil expectation in her eyes that at last impressed him. Then, for pure relief to an over-burdened mind, he spoke out frankly his troubles.
"Miss Moneyash," he began; "I reckon you've been the kindest friend I've made in this country. Seems to me as if I'd had to tell you things from the very beginning, like that day on the coach when all Derbyshire seemed the same to me, and I'd no notion of a needle-in-a-haystack when I was searching around for that lost farm. You put me on the track of that and a pretty fret and fuss it promises. But that's no matter. Only it does seem kind of queer that you should have plopped me right down into another difficulty, doesn't it?"
"Another! why, I haven't heard of the first one yet, unless it's——"
"Molly? She's part of it, of course, and the worst is I can't say a word to her, or you, or anyone, about the real facts. They've tumbled into my hands in a purely accidental fashion, and they've got to be sorted out later on."
"You know perfectly well, my dear boy, that anything I can do——"
"But I can't give you a chance. That's just the way of it. It's bad luck all round. There, don't interrupt, like a dear soul, for once I'm set off I must keep on the track. What I wanted to say was this. After I got on to the ground I began to sling my eye round for information. I came on a nasty bit of private history that sort of complicated everything. Then I cut the whole business and came here and asked you to befriend this poor, unfortunate girl. How unfortunate you cannot possibly imagine. No, Miss Moneyash, if you let your mind take a balloon flight into the wildest regions of impossibilities, you'd never guess what's at the back of Molly's life."
"Is it so—awful?"
He nodded. "Well, as I was saying, I found I'd a big enough load to carry along by this time, taking the difficulties of proving my claims, and setting that darned skunk, Dick o' the Inn, about his business, and looking after the girl in a sort of cousinly-brotherly fashion. But there's where you came in. Just as the biggest crimes grew out of a grain of bad feeling, no bigger than a mustard seed, as the Bible says, so you, in your homely, kindly way, have set me up in a private detective business, that I never asked for, never wanted, and yet that's gripped me as sure as any trap set for mole, or beaver, or any other blind critter that goes fooling around in the dark!"
"My dear boy!" gasped the old lady, trying once more to stem the impetuous torrent of his words. "Do consider what you are saying. Such an accusation——"
"Oh! I'm not accusing! I know. You couldn't guess what would happen. You had to do it out of pure kindness of heart."
"Had to do—what?"
"Send me to that sanatorium of Dr. Quarn's."
"But, surely, you don't mean to say there's anything wrong there?"
"Now, that's like a woman! You're letting yourself go, and your surmises have no ballast. Who says there was anything wrong?"
"Why, you suggested——"
"If I suggest there's sugar in a flour-bag, it don't prove that there's no flour in it, or hasn't been one time or another. Folks don't always put the same goods in the same outside covers. Miss Moneyash, don't you be guessing foolishness, because that's a waste of time, and will wear out your brain tissue quicker than a Euclid problem."
She laughed, despite a growing uneasiness. "We are nearly home," she said, "and I haven't yet the faintest idea of what you want to tell me, or whether you have anything to tell."
"I'm on the inquiry line now," he answered slowly. "So, first of all, let me ask how long you've known Mrs. Quarn?"
"Oh, five or six years."
"And how long has she been married?"
"About the same time. I only knew her afterwards. Dr. Quarn had bought Park Edge, as it was then called. He turned it into its present condition after his marriage."
"His wife had money, I've been told?"
"I believe so. Though we are great friends, Mrs. Quarn rarely refers to her own private matters."
"Well, one more question. How long has she been an invalid, like she is now?"
"The illness has come on very gradually. It began with loss of appetite, then strength. She never complains, and she does not seem to suffer. I never knew a more lovely nature. Her name expresses it as well as her face."
"That's so. Have you any notion, Miss Moneyash, whether Dr. Quarn is unkind to her? I don't mean that he treats her badly, but has she ever said anything about neglect, or indifference, or——"
"You must really excuse me, Rufus," said the old lady, with gentle dignity. "But it is my turn to ask you if you have any right, or I any reason for prying into the private affairs of these people? I am, as I told you, the friend of Mrs. Quarn, and she, I believe, loves me as I love her. But friends, even women friends, don't tell each other everything. Their confidences may embrace many subjects. They may speak of things to each other of which they would never dream of speaking to their husbands. Yet there is always a reservation on some point."
"Then, I take it, Mrs. Quarn's reservation begins with her married life. She is wealthy, and young, and beautiful; yet she is a desperately unhappy woman. She is attacked by a mysterious illness that makes her a kind of prisoner, and yet, to you, her chief friend (and I don't know where she could find a better), she never breathes a word of the nature of her sufferings; the inner loneliness of her life?"
The surprise in Miss Lavinia's face swept away its usual sweet tranquillity.
"What do you mean? What has happened? I sent you to Peak Edge Hall but four days ago. The last thing you seemed to take seriously was life. You come back to me this morning and talk to me as if you were a chartered company of experience and had learnt its full value. Again I ask—what has happened?"
"Absolutely nothing—that I can speak of. That's just the aggravating part of the whole business. It sounds queer, it sounds mysterious; and I hate mystery as I hate lies, and treachery, and underground ways. But there it is—I seem to have gone out walking and got my feet caught in one of those trailing creeper things that sort of tangle you up the more you try to get free."
"And you blame me for the entanglement?"
"I said you were a sort of First Cause. I don't blame you. I only wonder——"
He broke off abruptly. They had reached the gate of Perrycourt as Miss Moneyash had named her pretty Home, and standing there, her bonnet swinging from her hand, and her eyes aglow with welcome and expectation, stood Molly Udale.
Had Miss Lavinia been inclined to administer a rebuke for broken rules, she could hardly have framed it, so transparent was the joy of the girls' face, and the surprise and gladness on that of Rufus Myrthe.
"I expect you will have plenty to say to one another," was all she observed. "There's half an hour yet before the dinner bell rings."
She left them in the garden and went up to her own room.
Mechanically she removed her delicate grey gloves (lilac and grey were the only two colours Miss Lavinia affected). With equal deliberation she took off her bonnet and rolled up its broad silk strings. Her mantle was removed and hung up in the wardrobe. Then she stood motionless for a few moments, her smooth brow puckered into lines of troubled thought, and in her gentle eyes a look of anxiety strange to their usual expression.
"What can he mean?" she asked herself. "No mere curiosity prompted those questions. It is more than coincidence that a suspicion I have hardly dared to formulate to myself should have taken shape and substance in that boy's words. He, too, dislikes that suave and honey-tongued man. He, too, has fathomed the secret of Patience Quarn's lonely life. Her illness is more of the mind than the body. I have always felt that. And there is a mystery about it. Why won't he call in other advice, seeing that his own skill is baffled? Why doesn't she insist upon it? Up to two years ago she was well and strong as I am; now she has sunk into hopeless, helpless invalidism. . . If only I could do anything. . . . If only I could put her own life-value before a foolish sense of professional etiquette. No great English specialist will meet her husband, so she says. But that need not prevent her from seeking an opinion independent of consultation. Yet her foolish, fond loyalty bars the way. . . Poor angel! She is too good for such a world—for such a man!"
With a heavy sigh she turned to the mirror and began to arrange her pretty white curls and her pretty lace cap.
"I had so looked forward to to-day," she was thinking. "That boy is like a breath of fresh, vigorous life. One can't help loving and admiring him. And I, all unwittingly, as he says, have set him on the track of trouble. There comes in another of the mysteries of life. We do a kind deed, and the results are evil. We try to clear the rough stones from the path of our beloved, and, lo, he falls over a precipice we have never descried. Of all natures I have ever known, that of Rufus Myrthe seems to me the least fitted for dealing with anything complex or unusual. He is so straightforward and outspoken. His worst is as apparent as anyone else's best. Now, take this affair of Molly."
Involuntarily she glanced out at the garden. Under a sycamore tree stood a wooden bench, and there her new charge was sitting beside Rufus. He was talking earnestly, and she was listening as earnestly. Her face so lovely in its grave attention that Miss Lavinia's eyes took in other meanings and other possibilities. "Have I done right even here?" She questioned. "Yet, what else could I do? Such beauty as that deserved better fate than ruffianism and ignorance were inclined to give it. If I do my best for her, and she becomes a good and useful woman, the reward for his interests and her own will be in her power to bestow. As yet he is perfectly heart-whole, and she perfectly unconscious. I wonder how long it will last?"
She went downstairs then, and into the long white-washed dining-hall, where every Sunday she took the head of the table at the early dinner. A place had been set for Rufus by her own. The girls sat each side of the table, and the matron, who had charge of them, faced Miss Lavinia at the foot. All was orderly and well-appointed, for the founder of the Home believed that refined methods were capable of producing refinement, and insisted on forming habits on this principle. Thus, somewhat to the surprise of Rufus Myrthe, the girls ate, and drank, and spoke in a manner he was far from expecting.
Uncouthness of accent or quaintness of phraseology did not destroy polite meaning. The habitual use of glass and china, and knife and fork, had soon lent to novelty the grace of custom.
Molly Udale was, as yet, the only girl present to whom such luxuries of appointment and service were unfamiliar. It was not easy to forget that a wooden bowl or a broken jug had hitherto served for table appliances, or that horn-handled knives and three-pronged forks had proved as capable of yeoman's service as ivory and electro-plate. But she had the gift of observance, and imitated readily if what her more self-assured companions did.
It seemed strange to Rufus Myrthe to be the only male creature among so many of the other sex, but he took the accident as cheerfully as he had taken most events in life. He was thinking how Molly was improved by her neat dress and neatly arranged hair, and what a contrast she must find between this comfortable home, and plentiful fare, and that miserable Inn with its scanty resources. But the Inn and all connection with it had become so troublous a subject that he thrust it hurriedly aside.
"I may take her for a walk this afternoon?" he asked Miss Lavinia, as the meal, which had consisted of soup, joint, and pudding, drew to a conclusion.
"Certainly; though I don't know what the other girls will think."
"Do you mean I ought to take them all?"
"Good gracious, no! What an idea. I might as well give up the home at once. I only meant it is unusual. In fact, it will be the first time such a thing has happened."
"Oh! I understand. But, then, the circumstances are a bit different, aren't they? I feel as if I'd got to look after Molly. Kind of responsible, and all that."
"I suppose," said Miss Lavinia, softly, "that you don't recognise what we call here a difference in social position, between Molly Udale and yourself?"
"Difference! Bless your soul—no. I've come from a land which teaches the true meaning of equality. Besides, come to think of it, I'm one of a stock of farmers myself. It's true I've been brought up better than if I'd stayed in this country, felt my feet, so to say; wasn't afraid of wanting means, or making a living. But there's not a stiver of difference between our positions. Don't ever put that idea into her head."
Miss Lavinia smiled, and gave the signal of dismissal by saying grace. It struck her as distinctly quaint that Rufus Myrthe should have supposed it was into Molly's head she had desired to put that idea!
Rufus Myrthe took Molly for the promised walk, and learnt from her that she was well content with the change in her circumstances and condition of life. The rules of the Home were few but strict. The girls were expected to observe them, and by doing so gained certain extra privileges. Their education was of a useful description, such as would serve them in after life, and open their minds to more rational forms of enjoyment than "junketting," flirting, and wasting time or money. Of Miss Lavinia's special kindness to herself, the girl spoke with passionate gratitude; and her avowed willingness to do anything her benefactress desired pleased Rufus mightily. That is to say, it pleased him until the disagreeable memory of what lay before the girl in the future rushed across his mind. Try as he might he could not forget that. But he gave Molly no hint. He was determined that some peace and comfort should fall into her hapless lot. If his hand had to dash it aside in the future, at least that same hand should build a barricade for the present. On the whole, he went away that evening well content with the promised success of his project. Come ill, come well, Molly Udale would at least face life on better terms than those she had resigned.
He left her in the peace of the Sabbath evening, and walked home in a mood that was new to himself. It never struck him until he was within sight of the Hall gates that he had forgotten to bid Miss Lavinia good-bye, but that omission held no sting of regret, or, rather, was saved from it by the discovery that Miss Lavinia was at the hall herself, having selected the afternoon to pay a visit to Patience Quarn.
The boudoir door was ajar as usual when Rufus passed up the stairs, and his knock for admission received its usual response. He was astonished to find his old friend established there; her chair drawn up to the fire, and she busy with teacups and hot cakes.
"Just in time," she exclaimed. "Mrs. Quarn was wondering whether you would drop in for your usual chat."
"I guess Mrs. Quarn hasn't any need to wonder about that," he answered readily. "People don't turn their backs on pleasures—as a rule."
He took the frail hand extended to him, and Miss Lavinia, glancing up at the same moment, caught the expression of his face. He said no more. He even wondered that he had been capable of blurting out that half foolish, wholly mean, compliment. To be in this lovely presence meant so much that he could only feel so little that he could express, that his usual ready tongue and ready wit failed him under stress of such novel and inexplicable emotion.
He had longed all the way home for this half-hour, as every day he had grown to long for it. Now that it was here, a reality instead of an expectation, he was only conscious of an absolute unworthiness of its privileges.
Something about the room and its occupants affected him as nothing apart from them had ever done. He could not define or express it, but the consciousness became almost tangible, and anything disturbing it gave him a mental start. There was no effort in his usual speech or manner, because he never stopped to think how they affected his hearers. But here, beside this exquisite piece of feminine intelligence he was in perpetual dread of seeming rough or coarse, of offending feelings too delicate and too rare for anything but a sensitive plant to own! There was no way of explaining how such a state of things had come about. He only felt that there they were, neither to be evaded nor banished; and capable of enduring for just thirty exquisite minutes out of the twenty-four hours.
That he was embarrassed, stupid, tactless, often occurred to him during those thirty minutes, and sometimes at successive intervals after they had passed. So it was that to-night he hailed Miss Lavinia's presence with a sense of relief. He could talk easily enough to her, and the addressing of Mrs. Quarn through a third person presented a felicitous method of amusing her that the first person singular lacked. He was conscious of the fact that his history and his quixotic protectorship of Molly Udale had been communicated to Patience Quarn that afternoon, and that she on her side, was studying him from quite a new point of view. Studying him with that wonder women invariably experience for a man's knack of keeping his private affairs and feelings exclusively in the background when he chooses. Before to-day he had seemed to her but a healthy, handsome young animal, unbroken to civilised manners and habits, and as amusing in his frisks and gambols as a wild colt in a fenced paddock. But when Miss Lavinia began to talk of him, allowing the warmth of feminine admiration to tinge the picture her words painted, Patience Quarn was conscious of a singularly vital interest aroused by her friend's description.
"It is good to have such a genuine piece of unspoilt humanity once in one's life!" Miss Lavinia had said. "It's a queer thing, Patience, but women are always trying to pretend a man is what they want him to be. He is generally something quite different, but they hug their illusions all the closer, and merely allow for 'variations' on the original theme. If they were only sensible they would take him for what he is, a queer mixture of good and bad, which he is always trying to balance."
"But when we love him we never think of faults or shortcomings. His simplest action has a flavour of heroism."
"I suppose I never loved a man like that," said Miss Lavinia thoughtfully; and upon her answer tea had been introduced, and following it came Rufus Myrthe.
The new interest that had attached to him after hearing his story made Patience Quarn more sympathetic even than her wont. The gracious sweetness of her manner, the intent look in her deep eyes, were dangerous revelations to the young Quixote, as Miss Lavinia called him. Dangerous, because for the first time he knew himself as the object of that interest. Hitherto he had been an outside quantity to her mind, the recipient of mere conventional greetings; an acquaintance, to whom the word amusing gave a qualifying terminology, and for whose use, or deeper importance, no circumstance had arisen. All this had now changed.
Set before her as the simple, brave, strong-hearted creature whom Miss Lavinia was on a fair way to idolise, he held a clear claim to higher recognition. Frankly she gave it. Treating him for once to the outpouring of much that meant her cultured, thoughtful, imaginative self, so that the conversation between Miss Lavinia and herself brought him into its confidence, its themes, and its speculations, and spiritual area, in a way that no woman's converse had ever brought him. Miss Lavinia he knew as well-read, well-educated, and a highly intelligent woman, yet womanly withal, and large-hearted enough to embrace many objects that appealed to her time, her sympathy, and her wealth.
But of Patience Quarn he had formed no definite opinion as yet. She had been visionary and illusive; a dream of exquisite beauty and exquisite feelings that held all a vision's entrancement and all its need of explanation. To-day he became suddenly conscious that explanation was blending with the entrancement, and that the beauty and illusiveness were shaping themselves into form, even as a rainbow suddenly draws its arch of colour from a nebulous mist of cloud. He had little desire to break this spell by the intrusion of his own voice framing an opinion, or giving agreement to hers. Listening had suddenly become a charm, and yet he seemed to have talked too much and too often.
It is only once in a lifetime that young manhood takes off its shoes, so to say, in the presence of Woman the Divinity, knowing that it treads on holy ground. Only once that she becomes to him saint and shrine together, and all the world of woman outside and beyond her are simply the unconsidered mass of sexual forces of which she is the one and sole exponent.
Usually he is very young, and very ignorant, and very trustful when he first stands, unshod and trembling, on that holy ground aforesaid. It is seldom or never his fate to do more than touch it. Perhaps that is well.
The sterner needs of life recall him from that dream. The harsh truths of life clash and clamour against its tender melody. The cold hands of Fate or circumstances draw him back to realities. The golden moment has passed. He can only be thankful in after years that it was golden—for a moment.
Sometimes woman herself is his disillusionist. Sometimes it is she who suggests the ground may not be quite so holy as he imagines, the shrine not quite so sacred. If that be so poor youth fares worse at her hands than at the cruelty of that Fate against which he had raged. For such an awakening has the agony, and not the peace, of death. Such disillusion colours all his future life, and even repenting Magdalene wins no more charity than the Phrynes or Circes he satirises with his scorn.
Rufus Myrthe was in that first glorified stage that only asks to adore. No one, not the gentle, motherly woman who had grown to love him as her own son, not even the unconscious object of his adoration herself, could have blamed him for his feelings. They were the gift of true reverence more than of absolute knowledge. The throbbing melody was so sweet that his listening ear caught no echoing thunder from the waves of disaster beyond. He only knew that if through all the days to come he might claim just such a half-hour of bliss in each, life would be full, and complete, and satisfying.
Which, alas! only shows that he must have been very young!
The advent of a girl of such rare beauty as Molly Udale possessed could not pass unremarked or unenvied by a community of less favoured members of her age and sex.
Of the fifteen girl inmates of Perrycourt fourteen had considered themselves passably comely until the arrival of the fifteenth. Then, by reason of those comparisons which an old proverb wisely assures us are "odious," they became gradually conscious of defects, or neglect on the part of Nature, hitherto unnoticed.
The two girls who shared Molly's room were pleasant, good-hearted creatures enough; one the orphaned child of a dairy farmer in Suffolk, the other belonging to that class of workers who favour towns. She was a Manchester girl, and this quiet retreat, whither Miss Moneyash had brought her, savoured somewhat of dullness.
These girls were not in the least degree reticent as to particulars of their own lives and experiences, or their ideas of future good fortune when they should leave the Home. They somewhat resented the new inmate's reserve. Molly never spoke of her father, or the Inn, or the circumstances of her previous life. To all hints and questionings she turned a deaf ear. After that Sunday, however, which had placed her before them as a specially-favoured individual, possessing the acquaintance of a young man, their curiosity grew rampant.
"What relation was he?" "How long had she known him?" "What was his business?" "Why did he talk so differently from folks hereabouts!" "Were they keeping company?"
These, and other similar questions, disturbed Molly's rest that night, and kept up an atmosphere of insistent whisperings in the room.
"Keeping company" had no meaning for her, and she demanded one from her better-informed companions.
The information was such as to bring warmer roses into the girl's cheeks than those already blooming there. To make her thankful for the darkness, and angry—yet glad—that her veil of ignorance was for ever rent asunder.
"Yo' be quite wrong," she said, fiercely. "He's nothin' to me more'n a brother might be. Nor wud I want it. It's naught but kindness an' a memory o' far-off relationship as makes him kind o' pity my loneliness."
"Dear heart! Now, there's a tale," said black-eyed Jess from Manchester. "It's silly to pretend young men don't mean nothing by coming after a girl, and taking her walks and all that. 'Tis the way courting always commences. You take my word for 't."
"I've heard so from my married sister," observed the Suffolk girl, who was named Martha Dilley. "She told me as how Tom Naggett used to be always hanging round the cowsheds, milking-time, as a beginning, and then he took courage, and asked her to walk with him o' Sundays. And arter a time it came to a talk o' a cottage, and holy matrimony."
Molly kept silent, but her ears burnt now as well as her cheeks.
"He's a fine set-up young man—gentlemanly, I should say, but for some o' his words," continued Jess. "I've heard folk talk like that in Manchester. Mostly they comes from Merriky. Is your friend," (with marked emphasis) "from those parts, Molly Udale?"
"Yes," she answered, briefly.
"You don't mean to tell us much," continued the girl. "And I don't hold it's friendly for Martha and me han't kept any o' our secrets to ourselves. You might try to be a bit more up-spoken."
"I ha' nothin' to tell ye," said Molly. "He's just what I sed; no more nor that. An' I dunna wish to talk. I'm nigh dead wi' sleep."
She turned on her pillow and relapsed into unsociability, despite hints and innuendoes. The girls gave up their efforts at last. Evidently Molly was not to be "drawn," and they in turn talked drowsiness into sleep, and the room grew quite still, save for the sound of soft, long-drawn breaths, or the unromantic snoring of the Suffolk girl, on whom the indulgence of cheese at supper had always a disastrous effect.
But Molly was not asleep. Wide-eyed, thought-stirred, she lay, amidst the still novel comforts of snowy linen and warm covering.
Her heart was fluttering like a bird in her breast. She could not forget what these girls had insinuated. For the first time in her life she was face to face with the first problem of womanhood. The why and wherefore of that subtle attraction which lend a new meaning to the seeming innocence of comradeship. As usual, too, with innocence, it was one of her own sex who had acted interpreter. There had been no question on her part as to why she had won interest from the handsome young stranger. But the insight afforded into men's character by the Suffolk girl suggested a new meaning underlying the friendliness of her own special friend. And that meaning was so wholly wonderful that it seemed to overthrow her whole mental balance for the time being. These few days of a changed life, of kindly words and kindly counsel, of decent clothes, food, and general surroundings, had left her thirsty for its continuance. She was perfectly sure that a return to that old, degrading life would be impossible, and all her crushed and dormant energies merged into one determination, that of making the very best of her present good fortune, and astonishing and pleasing her young champion.
It was what they had talked of under the sycamore tree when Miss Lavinia had seen them through the window. He had expressed approval of her changed appearance, and commended her behaviour in church, which considered as a first experience had been a prospective ordeal, only relieved by the friendly nudges and tugs of Suffolk Martha at critical parts of the service, demanding sudden alterations of position. But the singing and prayers had appealed strongly to a semi-religious strain in her nature, compounded of long days and hours of loneliness and a large acquaintance with strange and solemn dawns and nights on the open moor. Such things as these bring to the untutored soul some sense of their own mysteries, and some questions as to its relative place in the scheme of creation.
Though Molly could not have given outward expression to such feelings, they had had their use and taught their meanings. So when prayer and praise voiced them for the first time, she thrilled with a sense of God's presence and God's gifts of life, and sense, and intelligence. And Rufus Myrthe had seemed to understand this and the reason of it, before her stumbling tongue had half-expressed it. It was this ready comprehension that had lifted him still higher in the scale of her grateful thoughts. Comparison with other girls had left her shamed at her ignorance; abashed by the difference between her past and present. Yet he had never drawn any comparison between them, never found fault with what she knew she lacked, and feared she might never gain.
Her heart had gone out to him in a wave of passionate gratitude. She knew that for six days she could work from dawn to night, if need be, only to win a word of praise from him on the seventh. And these feelings had wanted no translation. Like nestling birds, they had hovered round her heart and then sunk to rest there with folded wings of deep content. Why had these girls disturbed that nest with their foolish talk and questions? Why, made it a difficulty henceforward to meet Rufus Myrthe, seeing that laughing eyes would watch and laughing lips jest at what to her was sacred and untellable.
Differing from one another in moods, tastes, and natures, yet the whole fourteen girls met on common ground when they hinted at "sweethearts." The topic, as yet impersonal was the one topic of engrossing interest that pushed all others aside. And here was a case at hand to speculate about. Their "beauty," as they called Molly, wore quite a halo of superiority since the advent of the "young man," who had so coolly marched into their cloistered existence and claimed brotherly or cousinly rights without any legal claim to either. For Miss Lavinia had spoken to the matron, and the matron had mentioned the "peculiar circumstances" to the eldest girl, who was also monitress of her dormitory, and thus a hint had dropped from one to another, with the result of to-night's outburst of curiosity.
Much of this Molly could not know, but what she did know left her wretched and sleepless, and gave to Monday morning a wholly different meaning to that it had held on Saturday night.
But she braced herself to stoicism, and went about her duties and her tasks, regardless of what her companions might think.
Miss Lavinia herself directed what she should learn, and the simplest methods of doing so. The girl's ignorance was appalling. She had the merest smattering of elementary subjects, and her attempts at writing would have disgraced a child of six. Her attendance at the hamlet school had been of a desultory and unwilling description until such time as her mother's helplessness gave sufficient excuse to abandon it altogether. The regret for wasted opportunities spurred her now to an expenditure of time and attention almost painful. She even won the Manchester girl over to her aid, she being the most brilliant scholar of the whole fourteen.
"I mun' learn ta read writin' an' ta' speak better," she said, wistfully. "An' I've no more'n two or three months ta do it in."
The good-natured Jess agreed to help her all she could, and kept her word, too, in hopes of gaining her confidence, and learning what was the reason of that young man's Sunday visits.
The season "young man" meanwhile was awaiting the results of his letters home, and increasing his popularity at Peak Hall every successive day and week he remained.
The said "young man" meanwhile was supposed to be over, but various invalids and boarders still clung to "the treatment," and believed that the efficacy of the waters and the skill of Dr. Quarn would sooner or later result in the expected miracle of "a cure."
Miss Skelmore was among the boarders and Miss Topliss among the patients. There were also various married couples, of little interest to anyone but themselves, who had narrowed life into a regulation drill of "baths, waters, massage, diet and sleep." There was an impecunious, elderly Adonis, who was devoted to Miss Topliss; and a sickly youth given to reciting poetry badly, and playing Chopin a degree worse than he recited. There was also a fussy individual, with a deep bass voice and a cast in his eye, who seemed to have no absolute reason for staying on save a desire to inflict Shakespearian readings upon the assemblage whenever offered. A lady who had once been a professional singer, and a throaty tenor who hadn't, but always lamented the fact, on the score of constitutional delicacy, made up the party. As the autumn closed in Rufus Myrthe felt that the said party had a depressing influence even upon his spirits, by reason of what Arabella Skelmore had described as "being dependent on each other."
Added to this, a grave and horrible problem was tormenting his mind. Whether he evaded, or argued, or doubted its existence, there was no getting away from its haunting capabilities. He dared breathe no word, give no hint. He felt that a barrier was being slowly but surely raised between his protective devotion and its unconscious object. Rarely now were those half-hours allowed to him. Excuses of "weakness," "illness," "engagements," met him again and again at the threshold of that sacred room. Even when permission was given, he, as often as not, found the doctor also there; lounging in the easy-chair by the fire; interfering subtly between anything that tête-à-tête and turning the thirty expected moments of bliss into an exquisitely-designed torture.
Yet Rufus Myrthe lingered on with a dogged patience that was itself worthy of all praise. He bore sweet indifference and subtle sarcasm with equal imperturbability. He knew that the one was dictated by policy, and the other by fear. Yet he told himself with a secret pride in the telling, Dr. Quarn had begun to fear him, and before very long he should have good reason to do so.
At present there was but the shadowy instinct of animosity between the two men. The one envied the "handsome young brute," as he called him, his superb vitality, his unflagging energy, and his strong, wholesome manliness. And the other despised that mawkish sentimentality that appealed to sickly and hysterical women. He hated the suave smile, the soft walk, the watchful, tigerish eyes. Instinctively he felt that the man had a secret to hide, and that a sense of fear was never very far removed from the apparent tranquillity of his life.
But the days had drifted into weeks, and Rufus Myrthe had become so one with this strange household, and so engrossed by the new feelings at work within his soul, that he was in a fair way of forgetting the very matter that had paved the way to his presence here; the very object for which he had visited this special county, and become entangled in a double mystery. The expected letters had not arrived, and though he puzzled over the circumstance, he could only wait on in hope that each "next mail" would bring what the present one had failed to do.
Meanwhile he walked or rode about the country, picking up stray bits of information, exploring the wonders of cavern or mine, getting more topographical and historical information than most tourists ever troubled about.
One afternoon Rufus Myrthe returned to the Peak Hall somewhat earlier than his wont. The day was clouding in; the sky looked a stormy prophecy of rain and wind. He entered the fire-lit hall, and a sense of comfort and peace fell upon him. The group before the fire greeted him with a warm welcome, and little as he cared individually for any of them, he felt the gratitude of a stranger in a strange land for their appreciation of himself.
He suffered them to draw him into their midst, and give him tea and hot cakes, and other delicacies, which, as a rule, he despised, and made himself agreeable in his own fashion, until the fair Arabella let fall a piece of information which had an unexpected effect.
Yet she only said that Dr. Quarn had gone to Derby, and would not return till the next day.
To Rufus Myrthe the news was at once a relief and a perplexity. It paved the way for a confidential talk that he had vainly sought this past week, and yet it left the means of obtaining it both doubtful and indefinite. Miss Skelmore, rallying him on his silence, gained nothing except a brief excuse for abrupt departure on the plea of important letters to write before dinner. Then he left the group to themselves, and hurried up the stairs, his mind grown suddenly intent on one special object.
The boudoir door was shut. He knocked gently, and the faint familiar voice bade him enter. Mrs. Quarn was in her usual place on the couch. A neat maid sat beside her at needlework. Rufus advanced with that subdued eagerness of step she knew so well, and bending over the frail figure put his usual question as to how she felt. "I've not seen you for two days," he added.
"No," she said. "I didn't feel equal to going downstairs. But I'm better to-day. Won't you sit down?"
He took the chair to which she pointed, and wondered how long the neat maid was going to hang on to the situation. What he had to say was difficult enough. A third person rendered it impossible. Whether Mrs. Quarn also recognised the fact, or whether she was indifferent, she bade the girl go down to her tea, and not return till she rang. When the door closed she turned her full, sad gaze upon the young American.
"I have seen better actors than you," she observed. "What is the important matter that is tormenting your sense of restraint?"
"How did you come to guess!"
"Your face has not yet learnt to mask either its desires or its emotions."
That face flew a red flag of embarrassment at such candid speaking. He took his courage in both hands and blurted out.
"It may seem a preposterous sort of thing to say, but will you tell me, Mrs. Quarn, why you don't get hold of some other medical advice? Why you don't try some new treatment? Why you are content to just go on day for day, week for week, losing strength, that you don't regain? It's right down terrible to me to see a woman, so young and beautiful as you, content to let her life slip from her grasp for want of a little courage; a little common-sense."
He stopped suddenly. The look in her face was like a shock to his excited sympathy, so sad it was, and so unutterably hopeless.
"I shall never get any better. Perhaps—I don't want to."
"If that's so," he said, in a husky, subdued voice, "there must be some very strong reason in the background. You were well, and strong, and lovely two years ago; Miss Moneyash told me that. All of a sudden you changed; and you have let go of one thing after another."
"Yes," she said, mechanically. "The hope of happiness, the hope of motherhood, the hope of life."
"And all for this," he cried suddenly, with a sort of breathless passion that startled her. "For all this you have one person only to thank."
The look of terror in her uplifted eyes smote him to the heart. He sprang to his feet. "My God!" he cried. "Can't you see? Can't you understand? Why do you go on trusting? Why do you suffer unorthodox treatment—experiments—God knows what? Why don't you go away from here—go anywhere—anywhere, and let an English doctor see you and find out what's the matter? Oh! I knew you'd look indignant. But just hear me out. Days and weeks now I've been waiting to speak, and I must speak! Mrs. Quarn, you've no right to be ill. You wouldn't be ill if you refused to take the medicine I've seen in your room!"
The white face lifted itself from pillows scarcely whiter. "What do you mean? Are you aware of what your words—suggest?"
"They suggest," he said, struggling for calmness, "the fear in my own heart. It's no use pretending otherwise. I can't get away from it! Mrs. Quarn, may I tell you a story? A true one. Something that happened to me not above a couple of years ago. A story I shall never forget."
She let her head sink back to its old position, and made a faint gesture of assent.
"I was away out on a rough bit of work in a rough enough country," he said hurriedly. "And I, and the men with me, settled for a space in one of those mushroom towns that spring up out West, while your builders here would be fooling around with a yard measure and a truck of bricks. I calculate there were a score or two of buildings, including a store, and a printing office, and an hotel, not much class, any more than the folk themselves. Still, there it was, and did a trade. One day the whole place was in a fine taking! An ugly story was whispered, and grew and grew, until it just had to be confirmed, or scouted for a lie. No two ways about it. It's not a pleasant story for a lady to hear, Mrs. Quarn, and I respect you too much to go into all the ways of it. I'll only say conjugal infidelity, jealousy, unhappiness, had had an awful sequel. I was called on the jury at the inquest. They don't trouble much out there about your age or your birth certificate, or such like foolishness, when they want sense and strength and a bit of educated respectability thrown in. I found myself among eleven other free-born citizens, and we'd got to determine about a quack remedy given by a husband to his wife with the very best intentions, and—the very worst results."
The figure of the listening woman stirred uneasily. "It is not, as you said, a very pleasant story. I would rather——"
"Don't stop me now," he entreated; "I must go on. It won't take long. We tried the man, and for a time it was a toss-up as to our verdict. But at last we had to agree. He had murdered his wife slowly, and quite unsuspectedly. Murdered her because he had fallen in love with another woman, and he'd done it so cautiously and carefully that even the friend who attended her only fancied it was a natural sort of ailment. She was just a trifle suspicious at the end, because he was so set on giving her a curious sort of drug, and always had to travel to a town, a good hundred miles away, to get it. Yet, when it was analysed, it couldn't be proved exactly harmful. It was only when taken under certain physical conditions, and in conjunction with another drug, that it became dangerous."
"Why," she said, very low—"Why do you tell me this?"
He rose to his feet, and stood up, tall and straight, before her shrinking eyes.
"Mrs. Quarn," he said, sternly, "you are taking that same drug!"
A blow could not have struck the horrified woman more surely.
"Oh! how dare you!" she gasped. "Do you know what you insinuate?"
Rufus Myrthe turned aside. He could not meet those terrified eyes with any sort of composure.
"Yes, I know," he answered unsteadily. "And I know this too that if my own life could have been given to save you such knowledge, there would have been no two words about giving it. But I can't save you that way, and I can't shut my eyes to your danger, and I can't see you fading away day by day and keep silence, Mrs. Quarn. Proof is easy enough. I only ask you not to take that physic in the bottle with the green seal!"
"You must be mad! You have let your imagination run away with you. Why, what possible reason could—oh! I can't say it! . . . I can't think it! Oh! why—why have you told me this horrible story! Was my life so happy before that you should have snatched away from it my belief in the love and honour at the man you accuse!"
"I thought you'd take it hard," he said, bitterly. "I couldn't expect anything else. Sometimes I've wished I'd never set foot in this house—never made the discovery I did. And yet—look here, Mrs. Quarn, I'm as downright as a sledge-hammer, and you know it by this time! If I hadn't all the weight of truth on my side I'd never have spoken one word to disturb your faith. Sooner than that I'd have cut my tongue out! But, I tell you, I know what's being done to you just as surely as I know I'm speaking it. I don't know how many bottles of that stuff you've taken already. But I'm 'sure if you take another—you're a dead woman!"
She shuddered. The hue of face and lips grew almost deathlike.
"Oh, go!" she moaned. "Go! You have said enough."
"I'll not go," he said doggedly, "unless you'll let me give you some brandy. If you faint——"
She had fainted.
Hurriedly he rang the bell, but as his eyes searched desperately for restoratives they fell upon the bottle he had warned her against. In a sudden blind rage and fury he seized it and dashed it into the fire. A moment later the maid appeared.
"Your mistress is ill," he said, resigning his place with a feeling of helplessness.
"Faint," said the girl quietly. "Just rub her hands, sir, and lay her flat. Take those pillows away. I'll fetch her salts. I've seen her go off like this many a time. That's why master said she was never to be left alone."
"Many a time," Rufus Myrthe echoed that phrase through the miserable hours that followed this scene. "Many a time." And one time would come when that weak heart would refuse to flutter a signal of returning life; when the breath for which he had sought in agonised fear would issue no more through the sealed portals of existence.
Memory showed him the picture of another figure, silent and still, and for ever to be silent now. The face before him bore too the grey shadow he had learnt to know and dread. With a sudden passionate force he gathered the frail form in his arms, and strove to lend it warmth and vitality with all the power of will. It was but a momentary impulse; but the wave of his own strong feelings beat and surged against the passive misery he embraced; surged at the closed portals of sense and suffering, and by sheer domination won the citadel of life.
Her eyes opened. She sighed softly. He laid her gently back on the pillows as the maid re-entered the room.
Miss Lavinia sat in her cosy sitting-room at Perrycourt, busy with the housekeeping accounts of the week. She was too good a business woman, and had too conscientious views respecting the responsibility of wealth, ever to let waste or extravagance interfere with her charities.
A loud knock at the hall door made her lift her pretty white head with a sudden start. It was so imperative a summons, and so unlike the application of any ordinary visitor. Then a quick, firm tread echoed on the polished oak floor of the hall, her door was flung impetuously open, and she was confronted by a dripping figure, whose white set face and eyes of despair gave a new meaning to its personality.
"My dear Rufus!" she said wonderingly. "Why, you're soaked from head to foot! What on earth has happened?"
He stood suddenly still, midway in the room. He was trying to collect his disordered senses. Trying, too, to account for his presence there, seeing that only vague instinct had guided him. He had no clear recollection of why he had come, why he had suddenly burst from the Hall like a distraught creature, and rushed on through wind and rain, heart throbbing and brain afire, until the calm, sweet presence of the little lavender-clad lady forced upon him some sense of necessary explanation.
Mechanically he shook himself like a water dog, and pushed off the curly wet hair from his brow. "I'm in great trouble," he said; and she noted that all the glad, hopeful notes of youth seemed to have deserted his speech. It rang weary, mechanical, as if age or heavy grief weighed it.
"Come to the fire; or wait—take off that wet coat first—and then tell me all about it," she said, anxiously.
He came forward in the same dazed, mechanical way. He made no effort to remove the soaked garment. She rose and pushed a chair forward for him, and when he was seated she herself unbuttoned the coat and hung it on another chair, with that curious attention to trifles that women evince, even in moments of grave importance. The fact that his shirt was of flannel relieved her of immediate anxiety; though her material instincts took a wild gallop over the ground of possible ailments, beginning with rheumatic fever and ending with congestion of the lungs.
"Now, what has happened?" she repeated.
"I've just come from the Hall," he said, hoarsely. "Mrs. Quarn is very ill. She oughtn't to be alone. I want you to go to her and stay till she's well."
Miss Lavinia looked the astonishment she was incapable of expressing.
"Stay! What do you mean? How could I stay unless she or her husband ask me?"
"It's no time for standing on senseless ceremony like that!" he exclaimed, passionately. "I've suspected what's been going on from the first week I was there. I know now I was right—See here, Miss Moneyash, if Mrs. Quarn isn't removed from the medical treatment of that devil, if someone who is a friend, and can watch her night and day, can't live with her and guard her from his diabolical skill, she'll be a dead woman before the year's out."
To say that Miss Lavinia was startled and horror-struck conveys very little of the feelings that held her aghast and speechless, gazing at the young fellow as if she doubted his sanity.
"My dear boy! consider what you're saying! Dr. Quarn—and Patience! Why, it's impossible. Such a thing couldn't be. It's too horrible to think of!"
"It may be that—to you," he answered, doggedly. "But I'm not afraid to give it a name. And I've warned her, even as I'm warning you. If you want to save a scandal in the future, you'd better stir yourself now and do as I've advised."
"Do you mean to tell me that you've actually told Patience what you suspect the doctor of. Oh! I can't believe it."
"No more could she at first. But I had my case clear enough before I made up my mind to trouble her. If she hadn't been warned now it would soon have been too late."
"What did you tell her?" asked Miss Lavinia, faintly.
He gave in brief, clear words the history of that momentous interview.
"I left her with the maid," he concluded, "And I've thrown the accursed stuff away, so that she won't have a chance of taking any more of it. She'll be very ill for a few days, and then, if I'm any judge, she'll rally. She'll want food, which must be given very cautiously. In a fortnight she'll be able to walk, and in a month she'll be as well as ever she was. I'd stake every dollar I possess, and all my future fortunes, on that. But someone must be with her. She must be watched night and day, and there's no one I can think of who could do all this but you."
The little lady's face was so pale, and so distressed that it made demands on his sympathy. "I'm sorry I've frightened you. But, surely, you see the thing in the same light as I do."
"It's not that," she faltered, in a shaken voice. "Not that at all. Your words have only opened my eyes to a danger I've been trying to believe imaginary. What I ask you now is what I've often asked myself. The reason? She is devoted to him. He has the use of her wealth——"
"Are you sure of that?"
Miss Lavinia hesitated. Brought face to face with the question, she was not at all sure. Patience had never told her under what conditions she held her fortune, or in what way she was at liberty to dispose of it.
"I am not absolutely sure. But even supposing he desired the full benefit of it, surely—oh! Rufus, surely, he could not be slowly taking her life as you say! It is horrible, horrible! I can't believe it."
"The money," went on the young man, ruthlessly, "is only the motive, though a strong one. But there may be another. Supposing he got tired of his wife—supposing he has taken a fancy—elsewhere?"
The old lady's clear, soft cheeks grew rosy red.
"I have no suspicion, and Patience, I am sure, has none either, of such a state of things."
"Probably not. When a man's got that sort of card up his sleeve he don't, as a rule, put it on the table. But I really can't see why we should be troubling to find out what he may be doing, when we've got on the track of what he is. Let Mrs. Quarn get well, as she will, if my directions are carried out, and see then if her recovered health wakes up in him the relief and gratitude one would expect from a husband. This business he's got on hand is a slow one. That's how it can go unsuspected. You say no English physician would meet him for a consultation, so he's pretty safe. He can ask any or all of them. There's nothing to hinder that. And he can tell folks so, and lament like Job himself over the senseless, idiotic, life-sacrificing nonsense that you call professional etiquette in this country. Thank Heaven we don't have any of that sort of foolishness where I come from! Seems to me it's been created so as to give employment to coroners and judges, and keep up the price of funerals! But to go back to what I was saying. Being a slow business, he won't at first understand why she's getting better. If you're on the ground he'll put it down to your nursing, or fancy she's not having so much of the drug. Then he'll begin to worry. Now, you see how easy it'll be for you to prove whether I am right or not, and to prove it while safeguarding Mrs. Quarn at the same time."
She was silent. It was no easy matter to nerve her simple, clean-souled, God-fearing self to face such an ordeal as a month under the conditions prescribed. Her frightened eyes searched the young man's face. It seemed to her to have aged by years since she had last seen it. Evidently he was in deadly earnest, and had every reason to ask her belief in this horrible tale. Every word he had spoken besought her confidence; if uncertain of others, he was essentially sure of himself and what he knew.
He waited for her answer with desperate eagerness. It seemed to him that two lives hung in the balance while she was deliberately holding the scales, and mentally adding or subtracting the infinitesimal weights of her own theories. The failure of his project would mean a life-failure to himself. The overthrow of something whose proportions were no longer adjustable to mere kindly interest. All previous aims and objects had suddenly dwarfed before the intense longing to save and help this one woman. For her sake he had possessed himself of patience; had waited like a humble beggar at the door for chance crumbs of notice; become a discreet and unimportunate slave.
Only with the vivid terror of danger near at hand had he torn her from her nest of self-delusion, and left her shivering, terror-struck, awake, before the threshold of doom.
Every moment that still kept Miss Lavinia silent was torture to him. In the present crisis he was helpless if she would not fall in with his scheme. To watch over this threatened life would be impossible to him. Equally impossible would be warning or threat to the smiling traitor, under whose roof crime stalked disguised as skill.
He moved restlessly in his chair. The mute appeal in his eyes was like the dumb entreaty we see sometimes in those of a dog. Miss Lavinia caught the look; the ready tears sprang to her eyes.
"I will go," she said, simply.
He threw himself at her feet, boy-like, and seizing her hands he kissed them passionately. His relief was so great he could find no words to meet the situation. "God in Heaven bless you," he whispered at last; "she'll be saved!"
* * * * * *
The fact of Dr. Quarn's absence gave Miss Lavinia every excuse needful for her appearance on the scene, and her expressed determination to stay until Patience was out of danger. The prolonged fainting fits had been followed by an hysterical seizure which had alarmed the maid and the resident nurse, and yielded to none of the usual remedies. But when Rufus Myrthe returned in a hired carriage, that conveyed Miss Moneyash also, a feeling of relief swept away their terrors.
Miss Lavinia at once set to work to prove herself the useful and determined person that previous emergencies had always found her. She scolded her patient into quietude, and then soothed her disordered nerves by a powerful sedative. When sleep at last came, and the crisis was over, she began to think of suitable arrangements for herself. The dressing-room adjoining Mrs. Quarn's bedroom was large enough to admit of a bed, and a door opened from one to the other. Thus it would be possible to keep the invalid under strict surveillance. But she had also determined on securing the services of a trained nurse from Manchester. She was more inclined to trust a stranger than even Patience's own maid. Also, she felt sure that the doctor, on his return, would scarcely dismiss a professional attendant without good reason, though he might object to Miss Lavinia's own self-invited presence. If he did, there would be nothing for it but to give a hint to the nurse, and bid her watch carefully that her patient received no medicine from her husband.
All these arrangements she planned that night while Patience slept on, exhausted. Little sleep came to Miss Lavinia herself. She was too horror-struck by the tragedy so suddenly evoked; too full of anxiety for what might yet happen. She lay wide-eyed watchful, listening to the storm without, and wondering what could be the real reason for Dr. Quarn's abominable action; at times hardly able to convince herself of the reality of all that had passed.
It was like some horrible revelation such as now and then leapt into the pages of the press, showing the fangs of the beast in Nature, under the smiling mask of civilised life.
One had read of such things, of course, but they seemed to belong to another class of humanity. A class beyond the pale of education or refinement.
The morning brought sunshine and beauty to the outer world, and still further enhanced the contrast between its fresh and wholesome loveliness and the black cloud resting upon the house and its inmates.
Patience Quarn at last awoke, and saw the anxious loving face of her friend bent over her. She stared blankly at it, and then at the familiar things around.
It seemed to her as if for hours she had been standing on an abyss, gazing down, down, into fathomless depths. Then a hand, strong and rough, but saving, had caught her back, and set her on firm ground. What had it meant. Who had saved her?
She closed her eyes again. Miss Lavinia's gentle voice besought her to look up, to take the nourishment she held; but the very thought brought back the old nausea.
She turned languidly away. "Leave me alone," she implored. "I know all . . . I remember . . . It is best I should die."
The hen is a timorous enough creature, usually considered, but the hen with her chickens to defend becomes a fierce and fearless antagonist, fully conscious of claws, and ruffled feathers, and sharp beak. In like manner, Lavinia Moneyash had been the simplest and least aggressive of maiden ladies until a sudden emergency showed her the duty of defending two human things she loved. Those words of Patience Quarn acted like an electric shock, bracing brain and heart, and bringing every energy to bear upon the situation. Instead of a pitying, sympathetic listener, she became a stern and upbraiding judge.
The invalid was arraigned for her indifference to life as a sin. She was told history of other sad, and deserted, and broken-hearted creatures, who yet had been brave and strong enough to take up their allotted burden and struggle along the great highway to the goal of promised rest. She heard that individual life has more than an individual stake in the larger issues of time. The other lives claim it for help, for sustenance, for example, for sympathy. That weakly to lay down arms at the first obstacle is to cry "coward" for ever after.
She listened nerveless and beaten, with the look of a creature that has abdicated its own rights to life's kingdom. She listened, and knew that throughout the listening a still, small voice within her own heart bade her be of good courage, and turn back from the road on which Despair had sent her; turn back and hope once more.
Bravely Miss Lavinia fought that battle, for fear lay heavy at her heart. She did not know when Dr. Quarn might return, but she knew that only a supreme effort could nerve this suffering woman to assert her claims to the life he was destroying. This knowledge it was that gave her that quiet sternness of demeanour, the firm resolve to combat all complaints, all opposition, and force her patient into rallying her exhausted strength, her mental energies.
And she succeeded. By nightfall, when the professional nurse arrived, Patience Quarn had turned from those opening gates she had so nearly reached, and watched them slowly, slowly close, and had held out her hands of gratitude to her saviour.
"I shall not die—yet," she said. "There is something more to do."
Then, the fighting over and done, her faithful friend proved a true woman after all, and needing woman's one relief and safeguard, she beat a hasty retreat and cried herself to sleep.
The battle had raged twenty-four hours. Victor and vanquished were alike exhausted.
The critical eye of the experienced nurse saw something a little unusual about case and patient. She thought it strange enough at a first glimpse, but stranger still when she was interviewed by a young man who proclaimed himself merely a friend of the patient, yet proceeded to lay down the law to a professional attendant. Guarded as he was, and cautious as to what he hinted, or avoided, yet the nurse gathered plainly enough there was some mystery lurking behind this strange illness. The fact of there being no doctor, no medicine, and a strict and constant guard over the sick room, were hints that she was wise enough to accept and to leave unquestioned. If the patient's own husband, a medical man, had deserted her at a crucial stage of her malady, it certainly looked—suspicious. Either he had misunderstood the case, or was indifferent to its serious possibilities. But being of the sensible order of that somewhat overrated sisterhood, she made her own diagnosis, drew her own conclusions, and brought with her such a sense of relief and helpfulness that Rufus Myrthe and Miss Lavinia felt as if a heavy load had been removed from their shoulders. The night passed tranquilly and uneventfully. Rufus Myrthe assured the inmates of the Hall that all danger was at an end, and that being the case, they wondered at his unusual gravity. He seemed indifferent to all jests, games, and contrivances for passing the evening hours.
The truth was that the young fellow was feeling the weight of the natural reaction after all he had gone through. He had known no sleep or rest, had scarcely touched food, had been racked with torturing fears and doubts. But now had come a breathing space. He knew of course that in time to come a far worse battle would have to be waged, but for the present he was content with an armistice. Worn out, he threw himself on his bed that night, and before many moments was in the deep, dreamless slumber that is Nature's blessed gift to youth.
That second night Patience Quarn lay awake; wide-eyed, thought-racked.
Her gaze took in the luxuries and dainty appointments of her room. When she had first been introduced to them she had expressed all a young bride's admiration and gratitude. Now, she could only remember her friend's caustic question: "With whose money were they bought?"
Again she remembered her interest in her husband's plans for enlarging and beautifying the old Hall. The fitting up of his own surgery. The lavish expenditure on scientific books, instruments, and chemical appliances. The amusement caused by patients who flocked to him, or the paying guests whose money gave him an income apart from her own resources. That income was rigidly kept to himself. Never once had he offered to repay even a portion of the large sums she had originally expended for his advantage. Never—she remembered now—expressed even gratitude for her lavish gifts. He had taken them as a right, used them for his own purpose, and then perpetually tried to get at her capital. But on this point she had been firm. Not so much for her own sake as from some womanly instinct, some latent hope, that one day there might be another claimant. That hope had been again and again frustrated. She remembered that also now, and how she had longed for sympathy instead of brutal jest, and coarse derision of the shrinking, delicate feminine instincts that are rarely understood of man. But lack of understanding need not create lack of sympathy. She had felt that of late, that when brought face to face with a piece of natural, clean-souled manhood.
"He would have understood," she thought; and then grew crimson from head to foot that such a thought should dare to intrude itself even in this hour of feminine isolation. But memory's slate was not emptied yet of bitter records, and as she raised her feeble hand to wipe out one cruelty, another took its place. Purity that had been mocked, endurance that had been scorned, generosity that had been ignored; these came forward in turn and held that slate towards her, covered still with the writing she had tried to erase. Soft-veiled figures, fragile as those threads of complex feelings that weave for woman her inner garment of reserve, stole out from this misty darkness of the room and stood there at the foot of the bed with eyes that spoke reproach. She knew what such reproach meant; knew that her hands had weakly resigned one right after another. Knew now what she had only guessed before, that some reason she was too loyal to question had added a new bitterness to estrangement; that all the world of lavished love counted as naught when the fickle senses of the man she had lavished it upon caught flame at some new, unholy shrine, and there worshipped unashamed. "I have pardoned. I have condoned," she thought. "Laying blame to myself for failure, and all for what?"
The surging wave of bitterness within her heart answered that question. Others might seek the cause of dastardly purpose that had only just stopped short of criminality, but she knew it. There was no riddle in it for her. She had served him so loyally that to all other eyes he bore title to the loyalty she gave. But all the time her heart had ached beneath the burden of its own bitter knowledge. "And now I am sure," she told herself; "sure that he regarded me as a clog, an incubus, a something for ever interposed between himself and his desires. I have never questioned the reason of absences whose very regularity might have aroused suspicions. I have borne the deadweight of that dishonour in silence. But even this has not been enough. Nature would have answered his purpose in time. My heart was too surely broken to resist much longer."
The wakeful eyes grew a little dazed. From point to point of the familiar, beautiful things in that chamber of semi-widowhood they wandered again, and yet again. Slow tears gathered beneath the aching lids.
"It must end at last," she told herself. "Instead of helping to screen him I have become a temptation to crime. And I know his nature as few know it. Thwarted desire maddens him. It is not wise, or right, or safe, to oppose my poor self against this overmastering vice. Lavinia was right. We owe a duty to ourselves that even misery must not disregard. Of my own free will I took my place here. Having done so, it seemed impossible to break the tie. But endurance has led only to fresh difficulty. Instead of saving him, what has it done for me? Made me the unconscious tool that would surely have shaped his own destruction."
Her eyes closed wearily. The past seemed to heap itself into a mass of unsightly memories before which she vainly longed to draw a curtain of oblivion. But a hand stronger than her own held her back. A power stronger than her own forced her to look down upon those impurities.
"It is you good women who make sinners of man!" Miss Lavinia had sternly told her. "Because you haven't the courage to see them as they are! Because to hide, to pardon, to extenuate, is your sole idea of love."
Throughout long, wakeful hours that followed she gave herself up to forming plans that might mean safety for herself, yet bring no open scandal upon him. Even now she would spare him—if she could.
* * * * * *
Four days had passed, and Dr. Quarn had not returned. His absence made no material difference to the routine of life at the Hall. Everything was too well regulated for that. A few "pet" patients grumbled at the absence of their physician-in-ordinary, but even they had their baths, and their "massage," and their physio to fall back upon, besides the advice or attendance of the resident nurse, a stately and important person, who considered her knowledge and experience equal to that of any doctor in the three kingdoms.
To Rufus Myrthe those four days were an epoch even in a life, by no means uneventful.
To have plucked "a brand from the burning" is a feat distinctly meritorious in the eyes of Evangelicalism, but to have snatched a life from the jaws of death was a feat that gave to Destiny a new meaning.
He too wondered why Dr. Quarn did not return, but his wonder was of a totally different kind from that of the fair Arabella, or the exacting Miss Topliss, or any other of the interesting inmates of the establishment.
The fourth day brought to Rufus Myrthe the long-expected "mail" from America. It was with some surprise that he recognised that it had already become of secondary importance. The tragedy into whose action he had flung himself had a deafening or deadening effect upon previous farcical curtain-raisers. They were swept aside now by a paramount interest he could not dethrone. Still, he read his letters attentively, though with an ever-increasing sense of wonder at the gulf that had suddenly yawned between himself, as an important claimant for information, and the present apathy that set so limited a boundary to future ambitions.
In the solitude of his own room he read them, having first interviewed Miss Lavinia and learnt of her patient's progress and the results of quiet, rest, and careful nourishment.
His father's letter was as follows:—
"My dear son Rufus,
"It is my painful duty to announce to you that your late grandfather and grandmother brought no title deeds of any consequence with them when they left that played-out old country where you are at present located. (They aren't needed out here, if you come to think of it.) With regard to what you say concerning registers, certificates, warrantry, and other titular appendages, I only answer, you are sole heir and legatee by your said grandmother's own bequest, and to you, as by right aforesaid, are assigned such lands, tenements, crops, cattle, horses, poultry, and other goods, as your lamented relatives left behind them fifty years ago. So, my dear son, just you fix up your claim; tell the usurpers to 'Get.' I've shoved in a few letters of the old man, but I'm not exactly certain whether they have any bearing on the case at issue. However, they'll do to show to the fraudulent interloper, now enjoying your peculiar British privileges with that illegal effrontery only possible to a nation owning the idiotic institution of a House of lords (I put a small 'l' to show my contempt for their blamed foolishness); and wishing you all success in your efforts to resurrect our claim as a family whose rights are contemporarily vested in yourself, and not more fussing and fretting over precedents than is adjudged lawful and necessary.
"I am, my dear son,
"Your attached father,
"William Rufus Ashmore Myrthe.
"P.S.—I'm not certain I'd swear as to Marth, Myrth, or Myrthe; but that could be settled afterwards. There's a family strain about them all to any unprejudiced mind."
Rufus Myrthe put down that letter with a faint smile.
"Same old moonshiney, good-hearted piece of impossibility as ever," he said to himself. "This won't be much use, I reckon. I must try my friend the parson again about those registers. Maybe I'll find some dates in the old man's letters that'll help me. It's all very fine for father to say I'm only to tell the usurper to 'get,' but I guess it'll take something more than telling to make Dick Udale clear out."
Then he hustled the letters together, and leaning his elbows on the table, and his head on his hands, began to think.
The question at issue was whether he should leave Peak Hall altogether now that his work was done? He had given the warning, he had safeguarded Patience Quarn so far as it was possible. He had placed Miss Moneyash in charge. There was nothing more for him to do unless he wished to linger on, and act ignorance or indifference, while he watched results. But Rufus Myrthe was not a good actor, and he felt that the task of meeting the doctor, and taking his hand, and appearing on the same friendly terms, was one too unpalatable for his taste. Yet to turn his back on the roof that sheltered her, to leave her again in the power of this inhuman fiend, how could he bring himself to do that? He was nervous and distraught and unlike himself. The events of the last four days formed a crowd of incidents, and surmises, and experiences that hemmed in his usual straightforward procedure. There seemed no way of separating them. No way of clear single-hearted action possible. He must live on here and act a lie, or leave the place altogether, and so cut himself adrift from what was gradually becoming the sweetest and most beautiful part of life. Here he cut analysis short. He did not want to know why this companionship was so sweet and so beautiful. The fact was all-embracing and sufficed for present explanation. It might be unreal, or unreasonable. He might be the sport of illusion, "such stuff as dreams are made of." Yet none the less he hugged it closer than reality.
When he at last lifted his face from his hands he had come up to the only decision that seemed possible. He would seek her and ask her advice. After what had passed she could not refuse to see him, if only for a few moments. If she wished his protection it was hers. He was ready to fling down the gauntlet before her husband's face, and tell him what he had discovered. For scandal or exposure his honest young soul cared nothing. But, like a cold douche, came the thought of what such exposure would mean to her. Of the difficulty of proof; the ordeal she must face should matters progress too far. For her, and her only, his brain became a rendezvous for terrors of every kind. It seemed to him sacrilege to even think of drawing her from her cloistered purity, and bidding her stand before the world as victim and accuser. He would have hated any man, or woman, who would do such a thing. He doubly hated himself for its suggestion. In mental flashlights he saw scenes of horror, terror, shame, confusion, heaped pell-mell upon a stage half-cleared for action. His whole desire now was to keep the action back, yet give the villain of his piece his due. He sprang up at last from his chair by the window, and still the victim of unformed resolve, stood looking out at the wet walks of the desolate garden. As he did so the sound of wheels grated on the gravelled drive. Through the open casement came the sound of voices. At the sound of one he started, then stood suddenly motionless, all his senses concentrated, yet alert.
Only too well he knew those suave tones, that mirthless affected laugh.
"He's come back," he thought. "Well, there's no help now. I must stay here."
* * * * * *
What was taking place in that room, safeguarded by the nurse on one side, and Miss Lavinia on the other? Rufus Myrthe had no means of knowing, though he felt he would have perilled his life to do so.
He resumed his seat. Mechanically he read and re-read his letters, but his will seemed to have become cataleptic. It was incapable of active force. All the uproar of indecision that buzzed in his brain, and kept him in chaos, now died into a chill calm. He was here, and here he must remain, until "she bade him go." Over and over again he repeated those bald words as if there were stringent need to impress them upon his dormant faculties.
Would she see her husband? Would he insist upon an interview? No one had sufficient authority to prevent it, if he chose to do so. On the other hand he might not choose, having the knowledge in his own mind of what he had left behind to work its fatal results. If the nurse would only say her patient was asleep and must not be disturbed. If——. A low tap at the door arrested further surmisings. He opened it, and saw Miss Lavinia. She entered hurriedly, closing the door behind her.
"Quarn has returned," she said, breathlessly.
"I know. I heard him."
"I have not seen him—yet. The nurse told him what we had arranged. A severe hysterical seizure, great consequent weakness, the necessity for quiet. He did not press for an interview."
"Does he know you are here?"
"Yes. She told him. He seemed surprised."
"What about the change of rooms?"
"He was annoyed. But of course he could not alter them. He bade the nurse tell him when Patience was awake. He wished to see her."
"What are we to do—now?"
"I came to ask you that. I was so taken aback I really could not think out a plan."
"The wisest plan would be to keep on pretending she is worse until the day comes that she is better. But I doubt if she'd agree to that, and then there's the nurse."
"We should have to trust her. I often think she suspects as it is."
"He did not ask any questions about medicine?"
"No, he really said very little. I heard through the door. It was ajar. He went down to his consulting room and shut himself in."
Rufus Myrthe rose and squared his shoulders. A look of determination came into his face that contrasted strangely with his youth.
"I don't know what I would not sooner do than meet that man; sit at his table; touch his hand. I had almost made up my mind to clear out. But I wanted to see Mrs. Quarn first, and ask her if she'd like me to stay. She needs some protector. I wish to God she had a father, a brother. Hasn't she?"
"No. She was an only child, and her father died before she married. But, Rufus, you don't suppose he'd try that stuff again? Whatever he orders shall go into the fire, or out of the window. That I promise."
"I'd be sorry to prophesy what he'll do. It's better to let him suppose she's still taking his drug. Great Scott! I forgot, though; I've smashed the bottle."
"Don't you see if he goes sneaking about the room he'll find out she hasn't any of it, and ask where the bottle is. The doses were measured by a strip of paper marked at intervals. Naturally if he finds the bottle has gone he'll suspect something, or—go on another tack."
"We can prevent her from taking anything he orders."
"Not anything he gives."
"Patience herself would refuse to take anything from his hand now."
"I hope so," he said gravely. "But what reason will she give him for refusal?"
"That she has not said. She is very quiet. She seems always thinking. When her mind is made up she will tell me, I am sure, what she has determined upon. Oh!—--" And Miss Lavinia broke off into a sudden passion of indignation. "To think that anything so abominable, so awful, should be carried on under one's very eyes. Why can't we denounce him at once? Why should we pretend we are deceived?"
"It's not worth while for us to argue over that, I reckon. It rests with Mrs. Quarn. And she's not fit yet to bear up against such a scene as would have to be played between them. Don't suppose that I'm not feeling pretty mad at having to knuckle down to his game. But I see it's the only thing to do. Policy and I haven't shook hands yet over any business. I guess we've got to do it over this one."
Miss Lavinia sighed. She looked up admiringly at that combination of youth, strength, and fearlessness, which had so attracted her towards Rufus Myrthe from their first chance meeting.
"I hate to think you have to tread a crooked path to get into a straight road," she said.
"Well——," and he looked at her affectionately out of his clear, grey eyes. "If it comes to that, little lady, I guess you've got to tread a bit of it alongside of me. We must just grip hands and make the best of things."
"Pretending it's only a short cut," she said, rising, for she was anxious to be back "on duty."
"Just so. It's not only the present we've to consider, but the future. He's a dangerous customer to meddle with, Miss Moneyash."
"I have faith in you, Rufus," said the little old lady simply. "It seems as if Providence had sent you here at a critical moment. Certainly I consider you have saved her life."
She went away then, and Rufus Myrthe gathered up his letters and locked them away. A distrust of men and things in general had suddenly overwhelmed him. In the last month he had lived half a life time—the worst half. The half that brings to honesty the knowledge of corrupt dealing; to truth, the meaning of falsehood; to sincerity, the consciousness of treachery and deceit.
"I can't ever go back and pretend to be the same as I was when I came over here," he thought sadly. "This weight on my heart kind of stifles me. They say the chief active forces in life are gold and woman. Well, gold didn't count for much with me when I went searching out about that old property. As for woman——"
He thought of Molly, the loveliest piece of simple, natural girlhood he had ever met; all the virtues of primeval womanhood budding into flower, even under the antagonism of circumstances. And then, by contrast, came the memory of that undefined and half-visionary goddess, whom his adoration had fused into a unity of the divine and the human.
Was it one or both of these feminine influences that had broken the sleep of adolescence, and stirred its peace into wakeful distractions?
Some exterior force had come into play for which, as yet, he could not clearly account. Not being given to self-analysis, he pushed both subject and argument roughly into the background for the present, and seizing his hat, went out. He needed air, space, nature. The atmosphere of the Hall seemed to stifle him.
Dr. Quarn had no suspicion of what had occurred during his absence.
That Patience should be very ill was an expectation as much as a relief. He was a man for whom Duty had never possessed any meaning. A compound of selfishness, coldness, and vice, to whom anything not exactly touching his personal interests, was a matter of complete indifference. He had married Patience Forde for the sole reason that her infatuation for himself (the self he could reveal as fascinating, when he so chose) left her a prey to his own schemes and desires.
He possessed a furious ambition that poverty and opposition had conspired to delay. He desired some place in the world of science that should place scoffers at his feet, and give him the laugh over those high and mighty dignitaries who had turned a cold shoulder and an indifferent ear to his claims of fellowship. Below all this, and apart from it, burnt a lawless sensuality; passions that owned no self-governance, that were quick to live and quicker to die, and had left the epitaph of Victim on many a dishonoured grave.
Such was the man to whom Patience Forde had given her pure young life, her heart, her wealth, her trust.
Like most women who have to learn the true meaning of marriage by an experience nothing can avert, she had tried to stifle the whispers of a possible mistake. Tried to screen the cold light of disillusion with rosy curtains of her own weaving. To no living soul, scarcely even to her own, would she allow that the man she had idolised was utterly unworthy, and when flagrant instances had been forced upon her, sometimes by his own coarse words, sometimes by vengeful anonymity, she still pardoned, still excused until the strong tyrannical nature of the man had wearied of so passive a slave.
Turbulent animosity, revenge, invective, these might have had some effect upon one so brutally indifferent, but such things were absolutely unknown to Patience Quarn.
It is ever the fate or the meek of the earth to be trampled under foot. Patience proved no exception to the rule. She gave her cheek to the smiter, her back to the bearing of burden after burden. She even fancied that her prayers, her tears, her sweet forgiveness of repeated errors, might in time complete that miracle of reformation in which wives sometimes believe. Needless to say they did nothing of the sort with Felix Quarn. He had never loved her; he now despised her. Day by day, month by month, he set her further away from the confidence and the consideration that are assuredly a wife's rights, even when passion has vanished into the cold limbo of dead dreams.
To Patience Quarn nothing was left but the dead dreams. A pitiful catalogue they made? Love blinds, but also alas! Love binds! She was at last too weak, too wretched, too hopeless to do more than endure; that last and saddest fate of suffering womanhood who has shipwrecked her whole life for one man's love!
But endurance meant a long and wearisome penance to the man who had wronged her, and he had little taste for such bitter fruit. Her very presence was a reproach, her delicate health made her odious to a nature whose tastes lay in the direction of the bold and the voluptuous—something rich-hued, passionate, untamed. His senses were fickle as they were coarse, but even their fickleness had at last been brought to book. The snare he had so often set for others had caught his unwary feet. The knowledge had been a shock such as sometimes sobers a drunkard. It held him baffled, beaten, enraged. For the first time that poor, loving offender in his home became also an encumbrance. Sometimes he hated her for the mere fact of existence. Something it seemed both necessary and expedient to sweep her for ever from his path.
His medical knowledge had been gained in the byways of science, and his repute was one of boldly forced advancement, from whose path of "New and Unorthodox methods" the phalanx of his professional brethren stood coldly aloof.
It was in his student days, and while prosecuting his studies in America, that Felix Quarn learnt of the existence and properties of a certain curious drug, little known and less used in his own country. He had proved its efficacy in certain complaints, and under certain conditions, but had never thought of using it since his establishment as the head of Peak Edge Hall. When he did think of it, it was with a curious sense of unholy joy; the joy of one lighting upon means of escape from some loathed prison house. There was delay and difficulty in procuring the stuff, and its use had to be curiously disguised, as its professed virtues were really a deadly danger. But all this only appealed the more to that psychological perversity that made cruelty delicious and crime exhilarating. He began to take a fearful pleasure in his experiments. He even proved himself capable of pretending affection, interest, regard for his victim. He played with her sufferings, and followed up the growth of symptoms with such diabolical delight as a cat must feel while yet the warm and palpitating mouse flees from her velvet paw, to be clutched again and again by the fierce claws she has temporarily sheathed.
Rufus Myrthe had been reminded of feline subtlety the first moment he set eyes on Felix Quarn. He had been right. All that was suave, genial, polished, was merely the superficial covering of the vicious nature beneath. A very thin crust of veneer, only needing slight cause to break asunder into self-betrayal.
Such was the man who sat now in his own luxurious study, busied over the accumulation of letters and papers that were the growth of four days' absence. To most of them he gave indifferent attention. Two or three he tossed into the fire. The bills and accounts and demands he pushed into a letter clip and thrust into a drawer in his writing-table. Then he took out a cheque-book and went through its counterfoils. A frown gathered upon his brow. The amounts duplicated there were rather startling.
"It can't go on much longer," he thought. "If I were only sure she had made that will, I should not trouble my head about borrowing; but I've only her word for it. I wonder if Lavinia Moneyash would give her a hint as to setting her affairs in order. I know she's not over fond of me, and doubtless I've been well discussed and abused in their idiotic bursts of female confidence! . . . .How wise the Turks are! . . . . the only race in the world who know how to treat women."
He locked away the cheque book, and then strode across to the window. The sun was showing to pierce through drifting clouds of grey. The rain had ceased, and faint gleams of blue showed over the bare branches of the trees. He watched the mists lifting from the lower range of hills, blown upwards by the chilling autumn wind. From his window he commanded a wide, extensive view, but he had little admiration for the beauties of nature. A heart must needs possess some poetic instinct to appreciate her handiwork, and there was not a grain of poetry or romance in the composition of Felix Quarn. His thoughts now dwelt persistently on the topic of future inconvenience that might possibly accrue to himself should Patience die without having made him her executor and sole legatee.
Suddenly he turned and rang the bell. "Ask Miss Moneyash to favour me with a few minutes' conversation here," he said to the maid.
"I'll have to risk it," he told himself, as he waited impatiently for the little old lady's appearance. "Things are pretty near a crisis, and. . . . Well, there'll be the devil to pay if I can't handle some money soon. Laura is so damned extravagant, and I daren't offer Dolly Featherleigh anything but diamonds. Even then she's barely civil."
He threw himself into the chair by his table again, and drawing pen and paper toward him pretended to be writing a letter. He did not wish Miss Lavinia to find him unemployed, and in moments of stress or anxiety he could never keep his hands still. His features were perfectly under control, but those long white fingers had a knack of restlessness that he usually tried to provide against.
His "Come in," was closely followed by the entrance of his wife's friend. He rose with his invariable courtesy and gave her a chair, apologising the while for his summons.
"I wish to hear," he concluded, "the facts of this seizure, as the nurse calls it. Hysteria, was it not? Ah, I thought so. Poor Patience! She has been a great sufferer!"
"She has indeed," said Miss Lavinia, dryly. "I sometimes wonder if a change of——" His glance stayed her words, and made her hesitate. "——Of air, of scene," she hurried on, "would not be of some benefit. For five years she has never left the place, hardly even this house. Are you—I mean do you not think——"
Again she trembled and broke down. He half smiled, and taking up an ivory paper-knife from the costly trifles scattered about his table, proceeded to balance it carefully on his slender forefinger while he answered.
"I certainly do not think change of air or scene would be of the slightest benefit," he said coolly. "Not the slightest. The quiet restful life she has had here, and the treatment I have given her should have been successful in completing a cure; if anything could be—that."
"You—you have your doubts—as to her recovery?" stammered Miss Lavinia.
He shook his head with acquired professional solemnity. "Grave doubts. . . . Very grave doubts."
He turned aside as if to conceal a natural agitation, and Miss Lavinia's face grew crimson with suppressed indignation.
"Dr. Quarn," she said abruptly, "I think it is my duty to say that as the only friend my poor dear girl possesses I should be relieved by hearing another opinion."
The glance in his angry eyes shot terror to her heart, quickly as he veiled them. "I really fail to understand you," he said. "This is a very—extraordinary idea, Miss Moneyash. Do you mean to say you are throwing doubts on my capacity as a medical man? That you believe a stranger who knows nothing of my wife's constitution or idiosyncracies could be of more service in the present crisis than I? Really I must protest against so unfair and unwarrantable an insinuation. You are here under my roof self-invited. You have also taken upon yourself to engage a professional nurse on your own authority. Now you go a step further and accuse me of improper treatment!? With all deference to your sex and age and claims to friendship I protest against such unwarrantable interference! I must ask you to retract your words or—take the consequence."
Like a little ruffled bantam Miss Lavinia sprang from her chair strong in her purpose of defence, and stronger in the momentary indignation and hatred of the man who had so much to gain by driving her from an insecure position. It was not in this wise she had determined on saving her friend's life, not in this wise she had planned to entrap or defy this wily foe.
"I think I understand your meaning Dr. Quarn," she said. "This is ostensibly your house, and you are master and can deny its access to anyone who is displeasing to yourself!"
"Exactly my meaning," he answered insolently.
"That being the case, if you choose to punish my plain speaking I have no choice but to go."
He bowed ironically. "The loss of such delightful company would of course be mine."
"If—I go," she continued in a low suppressed voice—"if I go remember one thing, Dr. Quarn—should Patience get worse, should she die, I shall have the matter investigated by the proper authorities."
His face grew livid. The paper-knife fell to the ground. He stooped to pick it up and then his light, satirical laugh rang out over the stream of her excited words.
"Really, my dear lady, this is almost—melodramatic! We are absolutely on the point of quarrelling and for—what? A little difference of opinion on a matter of professional etiquette. Absurd, quite absurd!"
He tapped the leather-covered table with the paper-knife, and again laughed.
"I was perhaps somewhat hasty, but you must remember that professional pride is a very porcupine of touchiness. I have done everything that science can do for my poor wife; my years have been a sacrifice to her helpless invalidism. It hurts me deeply, most deeply, to hear my skill called in question. As far as I am concerned I am willing to have the first authority in the land here to consult over the strange symptoms Patience has developed. Perfectly willing. Write to anyone you please. There is a Medical Dictionary at your disposal. But I tell you plainly he can do no more than I have done."
Miss Lavinia stood silent. Her anger was still at fever point, but prudence cautioned her to veil suspicion. That permission to call in another opinion for consultation was absolutely useless. She remembered the familiar Shakespearian quotation:
"I can call spirits from the vasty
But—will they come."
Dr. Quarn's suggestion was as feasible. He knew well enough that no medical man of any consequence, or whose opinion was really valuable, would meet him in his own, or any other house. He was perfectly safe in agreeing to her suggestion, and his pretence of just indignation had only been a piece of consummate acting. But all the same her words had struck with a chill of fear to his heart. All the same, he called policy to his aid, and permitted her to think she had won the victory and might crown herself with its laurels did she please. Felix Quarn was not the man to hurl himself into a perilous position. He had no desire to put a rope round his neck, or hasten a catastrophe that would spoil his well-laid plans.
The true meaning of fear is only a dread of the Unknown. And he was unconscious of what Miss Lavinia had guessed or meant. Her words might have been a mere vague outburst of anger at threatened dismissal. They could hardly mean that she had absolutely discovered——
He thrust aside the thought with the contempt of a great mind for a lesser. The General's opinion of the soldier, the architect's of the stone-hewer. That the battle might never be won, the edifice never built but for the humble skill they affect to despise never enters into their calculations. The real meaning of Miss Lavinia's words had not entered into the supreme egotism of Felix Quarn. They were the foolish utterance of a foolish little woman. A woman who had actually spent her life and her wealth in benefiting less fortunate mortals, instead of endowing some needy member of the opposite sex with both!
So he compromised the situation, and became his old suave polished self. Not for worlds would he interfere with the good intentions of his wife's friend. She must remain as long as she pleased; do exactly what she thought best. Miss Lavinia temporised also with the "powers that be." Only too thankful that she might remain on guard. Only too fearful by some hint or imprudence she had betrayed the suspicion she had been so determined to conceal. But as the door closed behind her the mask fell from Felix Quarn's face. It looked the fiendish, evil thing that meant his real self. A fear coiled about his heart, touching that inner sanctuary of selfishness that for him was all in all. He wiped the cold sweat from his brow with a shaking hand.
"That I should have forgotten that!" he muttered again and again. "Forgotten that one suspicious circumstance would lead to a public inquiry. And then——"
To avoid the possibility of meeting Dr. Quarn at luncheon, Rufus Myrthe tramped on and on.
At first with no special goal, but after a time determining on one of the high Tors to the west of the valley as his destination. To reach the road he had to return part of his way, and by doing so came within sight of the posting house where the passenger coach changed horses.
The sound of the horn echoed clearly on the quiet air, and he saw the coach turn in from the road into the little town with its usual speed and noise and importance.
The sight of it arrested his step as suddenly as if a hand had checked him.
The coach should have met the train at the terminus. How came it then that Dr. Quarn had reached home at least an hour before its arrival?
He puzzled over that fact while he walked mechanically onwards. If the doctor had travelled from Derby he could not possibly have reached Peak Edge at the hour Rufus knew he had reached it. Even supposing he had hired a posting carriage it would have been scarcely possible to arrive so early in the morning.
Rufus took his pocket map from his coat and studied the routes and scales of miles, and made a rapid calculation. He folded it up again. "He never came back from there at all," he thought. "Another lie! But why let himself be found out so easily? . . . . . Perhaps he thought no one would inquire, I guess. I'll have some fun out of this at dinner-time to-night."
But the stern, young face showed little appreciation of "fun" at that moment, and his reflections were not calculated to lift the shadow.
In sober truth Rufus Myrthe found himself entangled in a network of troubles. It seemed curious to him now, as he glanced back along the line of events, that he had been inclined to scoff at the primitive ways, the behind-the-time methods of these quiet valleys, and yet found in them materials for a drama, stirring, cruel, blood-curdling, as the heart of a sensationalist could desire. The mood he was in presented only fresh complications. Each new event as it replaced the last filled him with surmises, and gave no direct clue to either continuance or result. Care and worry kept step with him to-day, and by the time he reached the distant mountain he felt that even Nature's kindliest mood had no spell to charm them away.
The sky had again darkened with rainclouds, and there was an almost wintry chill in the wind. Yet he climbed doggedly on up the massed shale and sandstone that gave the Tor its second name, and finally he reached the entrenchment of the ruined camp which crowned its summit.
He drew a deep breath and looked around. It was by no means his first visit, and the view was familiar, but there was always something exhilarating about standing on this height, and gazing down on the hive of human life below, and the sweep of the hill river, dale, and valley around. He made a half circuit and gained the southern slopes, and then proceeded through a narrow cleft in the hills. This opened into a pass some mile and a half long. On either side rose steeply scoured cliffs of fantastic form and from four to five hundred feet in height. The wild and dramatic beauty seen through the great portals of rock were reminiscent of other grand and wonderful freaks of nature in his own land, and had rendered this region specially attractive to the young American.
Even in his present perturbed condition the one consoling thought stole back—"Since these things are and have been, and shall continue to be, is human life so small a thing in the scale of Creation that it should but exist to suffer and to perish."
* * * * * *
It was late when Rufus Myrthe returned to the Hall, wet and tired and footsore, for with the decline of day rain had again fallen heavily. He was, however, getting used to the vagaries of climate, and drenchings did him no harm.
He lit the candles in his own room and changed his clothes. His toilet was nearly complete when he heard the maid bringing the usual hot water for dressing time. She knocked at his door.
"A letter for you, sir," she said. "Miss Moneyash wished me to bring it at once."
He flung open the door. Sudden fear gripped his heart and made his hand tremble.
He shut himself in and tore open the envelope at once.
"My dear Rufus," he read,
"I write this to prepare you for any contingencies. I was summoned by Dr. Quarn, and we had a long interview. I expressed my wish to have another opinion, and he accused me of insulting him professionally, and gave a very decided hint that my company here was not desired by him. I am afraid that I lost my temper. I have not your power of self-control, my dear boy. Something I said seemed to alarm him. For once I saw fear in his face. Then he temporised. I was to stay as long as I liked, and to do what I pleased. I give this hint to you, Rufus, so that you may know how to meet him to-night.
"Your affectionate friend,
"Now!" exclaimed Rufus Myrthe impatiently. "If that isn't just like a woman! Why couldn't she tell me what it was she said. Then I'd have a clue to follow up."
He turned the sheet over. It was written on the first and outer side of ordinary note paper. Suddenly he opened the inside. There he saw some more of the fine delicate writing, as much a thing of neatness and lavender as the little old lady herself.
"P.S.—What I said was that if I
left, and anything happened to Patience, I should have inquiries
made by the proper authorities.
"Great Scot! . . . . Well, I guess you have given the show away!" exclaimed the young man. "Why it's as good as telling him straight that we suspect him! I wonder how he took it? What he thinks? Pretty wild I guess. But I don't like it. Miss Moneyash should have been more careful. Forewarned's forearmed, thy say. And I told her to keep it dark until Mrs. Quarn's better. Complications, eh? It's like something in a novel. She's been too frank though. Side lights on his game aren't exactly desirable until we know how we're going to fight him. That rests with Mrs. Quarn."
His puzzled thoughts held him till the gong sounded for dinner. Then he burnt the letter by holding it to the candle. "Best not to keep it," he reflected. He glanced at the looking-glass as the flame spread into the brilliant circle. His face was unusually pale and stern. His eyes had a hard glitter.
"I suppose I arn't no sort of beauty beside him," he thought. "Perhaps it's all labour wasted. He'll get round her again and she'll only hate me for what I've done."
So wretched and haggard did the young face grow at the possibility that it might have told him had he stayed to question, what reflection of heart agony it bore. But he blew the light out with a hurried breath and went away slowly down the stairs.
In the hall, chatting and laughing with his female adorers, smiling, handsome, triumphant as ever, stood Felix Quarn.
A murderous rage smote heart and brain of Rufus Myrthe like a physical blow. It seemed to him as if a blood-red mist swam before his eyes, blotting out everyone and everything except that one face. It looked up at him as he came step by step down to where that eager group stood idly talking while she lay battling for life above their heads. That was his only thought, that and his sudden murderous hate for the smiling villain who had plotted this dastardly thing.
Then he heard his name and the mist cleared and he seemed to stand in an atmosphere of physical cold.
"Ah, Mr. Myrthe, and how are you? American mail come in yet?"
Not for worlds could Rufus have touched that outstretched hand. He saved himself by a somewhat clumsy device of stumbling over the trailing silk of Miss Topliss' amber skirts. When he had apologised, and was standing upright, the hand had dropped. He looked straight in the face at the smiling Judas.
"So you've come back, doctor! Yes, my mail has arrived at last. I guess 'twas a little more up to time than your coach this morning."
"My—coach?" echoed Dr. Quarn.
"The coach that meets the early train from Derby," said Rufus. "Odd it should have come in an hour after you'd got home."
"I didn't come by the coach."
He spoke quietly; his eye looked straight into the unflinching eyes of the young American. Whether he read antagonism, or that new-born hate, he betrayed nothing. His nerves were well under control now. He was playing for too heavy a stake to risk anything. The very thought that suspicion had entered these doors had a sobering effect upon previous recklessness. All had looked so safe, so easy, a week ago. But now it seemed to him that discovery had already shown its hideous face on the threshold. By every means in his power he must bar the door.
Without taking any more notice of Rufus Myrthe he led the way into the dining-room. Rufus followed to his old place beside Miss Skelmore. Of late she had not found him so amusing, and to-night he was unusually silent. She began to question him as to his news from home. She was inclined to attribute the change in him to some trouble there. Rufus had made no secret of the reason why he was staying on in this part of the county. The search for the lost heritage had made him quite a hero of romance to Arabella. But though he had talked about it, he had mentioned no names and given no details. Dr. Quarn had a very vague idea of the young fellow's purpose. In fact neither he nor his business had appeared to be of much importance of late, since the visits to the boudoir had been discontinued. He could not understand to-night why he found himself listening for that ringing hearty voice with its somewhat quaint phraseology. But he was conscious that he did so, even while affecting to be absorbed in the confidences of the old lady on his right hand.
"No, Miss Skelmore," he heard Rufus say, "there's nothing cleared up yet. But I'm going to set to work about it. I don't let grass grow where I'm treading, not as a rule. My trouble hitherto has been that I can't find out where certain members of my family were married. I applied to see the Parish Registers at the parish official's. I reckon you can call him the parson, but he refused to let me see them."
"Oh, but if you have the names and the year, or somewhere near the year, you can easily find that out. Every incumbent of a parish is bound to send a copy of the registrations to the Bishop of the diocese. So that, even if anything happens to the original register, you can ascertain what you want from those transcripts."
Rufus Myrthe for once began to look upon Arabella as the possessor of some sense and intelligence.
"Is that so? Well, now really, Miss Skelmore, you've done me a service. And I thank you. I had an idea that if I could not prove things by the original Parish Registers I could not support my claim. I guess now I see another way. The letters I had to-day give me some important dates. The only thing that bothers 'em is the change of name. The man at present in possession calls himself Dick Udale. Now——"
He stopped abruptly. An exclamation from the head of the table broke across his words. Dr. Quarn had been pouring out a glass of claret for the garrulous old lady. By some accident the decanter clashed with the glass. The contents were dyeing the white cloth with ruddy stains. The old lady had given the startled cry, and drawn her chair back to save her gown. A servant approached and hastened to wipe up the liquid, and place a clean napkin over the spot.
The old lady still babbled on. "So foolish of me, but I can't help it, doctor. So like blood, wasn't it? and I have a horror of blood stains. They make me quite sick. Now as I was saying——"
Rufus Myrthe felt no particular interest in what she was saying. He wondered in his own mind if there was any reason for the unsteadiness of Dr. Quarn's hand. But the incident was over and he went on with his story.
"Well, Miss Skelmore, this man seems to have taken possession of this place by some unexplained right. He turned the old farm house into an Inn, the ghastliest, dreariest, most inhospitable sort of a spot that ever mortal set eyes on. Why, the sign's enough to frighten any hungry or thirsty soul from ever crossing the threshold."
By this time three or four attentive faces had turned to Rufus. Dr. Quarn kept his studiously averted.
"What is the sign?" asked Miss Skelmore.
"A Headless Woman. Silent because she can't help herself. A safe enough sort of person to keep a secret. Eh, Miss Skelmore?"
The fair Arabella shuddered. "How gruesome, how horrid! Where is this Inn?"
"Buried in a wild bit of moorland some 20 miles from here."
"And this—is your heritage?"
"I believe so. The Inn was the original farm house. But that's not all. It appears that someone got a notion there was coal to be found in a certain part of the property. And they set to work, sinking and putting up machinery, and all the rest of it. However, after a time it turned out to be poor sort of stuff, not worth working out. So there it lies. A gruesome place. Desolation branded on every square yard—bog and moor around it. Haunted they say."
"Haunted! Oh delicious!" And Miss Skelmore gave a little affected scream. "You don't mean to say so. What by?"
He shrugged his shoulders indifferently. Then drank off his glass of uniced water and set it down. In doing so his glance strayed to the head of the table. Dr. Quarn had turned slightly. He was now looking at Rufus. His face was paler than its wont, his eyes had a look of strained attention. When he met the young man's direct gaze he smiled somewhat affectedly.
"Quite exciting, really. Pray continue, Mr. Myrthe. I believe you are on the brink of a ghost story."
Dessert was on the table now, and all faces turned towards the young American, as if in expectation of one of his usual amusing anecdotes.
What prompted him he could not tell. What strange power unlocked his lips and set him to pour forth that tragic story of death and silence, now—and in this place—he never asked. With his elbow leaning on the table, with his eyes on the ashen face of Felix Quarn, he painted in brief and simple words the tragedy of that wrecked life.
So clear and distinct was the portrait that it seemed to live before the eyes of each listener. But before none so clearly, so distinctly, as before the silent figure at the head of the table. He affected mere polite attention to a wearisome tale. He even took out his watch, and looked at the figures as if asking himself how long his attention would be taxed. But only himself knew that the hand that held it was shaking like an aspen leaf, that the eyes saw nought of dial, or figures, but were gazing back and back over a space of sinful years. Gazing at despair so terrible that for a moment even his callous heart had quivered and grown afraid. Listening to a vow kept with mute fidelity; hearing even now across the spaces of time a cry for mercy to which he had been deaf, and brutal, and relentless. Yet his face was blank of all expression. Not even the keen eyes watching it could be positive as to any feeling or emotion behind its mask of stillness. Only in his throat a tell-tale muscle quivered, and he knew that, for these moments, speech would have been beyond his power.
Rufus Myrthe ceased. A shudder of sympathetic horror ran round the listening circle. Then a deep-drawn breath spoke of tension, of relief. A chair was pushed back. The doctor had risen with some murmured excuse to his neighbour.
He walked steadily, slowly, to the door. But it seemed to himself as if miles spread between him and the liberty of solitude beyond. Like one dazed he passed through the hall, passed too the new nurse, who was crossing it to return to her patient's room. He saw no one. Heard nothing. Only when he reached his study and had locked the door he fell, a huddled heap, into the first chair.
"Silent—to the end!" he cried in a faint voice that seemed to issue unconsciously from his white lips. "To the end!"
Rufus Myrthe found himself a person of considerable importance that evening. In the drawing-room he was surrounded by the present inmates of the Hall, clamouring eagerly for more particulars about the mysterious Inn and the Silent Woman. However, a fit of reticence had overtaken him, and he would add nothing more to the bare outlines of the story already given.
His uncanny experiences the night of the woman's death; the weird voice whose cry had echoed over the moor on the occasion of his visit to the deserted mine, and the existence and present conditions of Molly Udale, he kept to himself. He had no wish to submit the girl to prying eyes, or make his championship of her forlorn condition the subject for curious tongues and idle speculations.
He seemed to have grown older by leaps and bounds since the day she had tramped so willingly beside him to her present refuge, talking in her quaint and simple fashion of her life and experiences, seeming to him no more than a beautiful, ignorant child. Inspiring him with no warmer feeling than intense pity, and a philosophical interest in a novel and exceedingly natural piece of womanhood. When he saw her now on each successive Sunday he found her somewhat shyer than at first she had appeared. But his mind was so preoccupied by other matters, and she seemed so much a thing apart from his life and interests in the Hall, that he took little notice of such dawning change.
To-night as Miss Skelmore and Miss Topliss and old Mrs. Montgomery (the doctor's most important patient) plied him with questions, he was glad that he had kept his own counsel on that one subject. He suddenly felt that they would never have understood his reasons, and that Molly might have been intruded upon in order to furnish fresh incidents of the mysterious Inn for their own idle amusement.
Weary of parrying questions he at last begged for cards, offering to teach them yet another new American game. The proposal was greeted with acclamation. Of late the popular favourite had taken to absenting himself from the social circle, and had favoured billiard-room or library. They were delighted to keep him in their midst for this evening, and he seemed quite his old breezy, amusing self. In reality he was all speculation and concern. But he had grown accustomed to keep his private affairs and feelings in the background, and the habit served him in good stead to-night. He had decided to remain in the drawing-room in order to watch the doctor should he return. But Felix Quarn gave no sign of doing so. As it drew on towards 10 o'clock, the invalid members of the establishment began to show signs of weariness and a disposition to retire to their own private domains. Cards were finally abandoned, and "good-nights" exchanged.
"I wonder why our dear doctor has deserted us," then observed Mrs. Montgomery. "I hope he is not ill. He seemed so preoccupied at dinner, and I noticed how tremulous his hands had become. He upset my claret, too! Such a bad omen. I have always noticed that to spill wine is a sure sign of quarrelling or disturbance. I do hope that nothing of that sort will happen here. We are all so happy, and comfortable, just like a family party."
"I know a good many family parties that are anything but happy or comfortable," observed Miss Topliss, who spoke feelingly and from an experience that was personally painful.
"Well, of course, there are exceptions," said the old lady cheerfully. "But as far as I am concerned I ask nothing better than things to remain as they are."
"Nothing remains as it is—for long," interposed the deep, sepulchral voice of the Shakespearian reciter. "Change is the order of nature. 'To be, or not to be,' is generally answered by 'not.'"
"Oh, dear, dear," chimed in the fair Arabella. "What a dreadfully gloomy person you are, Mr. Whackles. Positively, you frighten me!"
"And now I come to think of it," interposed the elderly Adonis, who was still paying deferential court to Miss Topliss. "I saw a single magpie fly over the garden just before sunset. You know the old adage about them. 'One for sorrow, two for mirth, three a marriage, four a——'"
"Ahem," coughed the fair Arabella, in blushing confusion. "It really is getting late, isn't it, dear Mrs. Montgomery?"
"And I'm to have a spinal bath before I go to bed," growled the bass inflections of Mr. Whackles' voice.
Which remark was so very upsetting to the bashfulness of the two maiden ladies that they beat an immediate retreat.
In another couple of moments the room was deserted by all but Rufus Myrthe. He still stood by the fireplace, looking down at the dull red glow as though he saw pictured there the busy fancies and tangled memories of his brain.
The door opened softly, and the anxious face of Miss Lavinia peered in. Seeing he was alone she hurriedly closed the door, and came to his side.
"Rufus," she said. "I have good news for you to-night. She is better—much better. I came down in the hopes of meeting you or finding you alone." She glanced quickly round. "Where was the doctor all the evening?" she asked, lowering her voice.
"I don't know. I haven't seen him since dinner."
"Nurse Ida met him crossing the hall to his study, as she was coming up after her dinner. She told me he looked very strange and ill. I wondered if you had said anything, Rufus?"
"No; not about this business, Miss Moneyash."
He relapsed into thought, and she watched him silently, wondering why be was so uncommunicative.
Presently her soft voice went on, taking up the thread of her first speech. "She is in a beautiful natural sleep, and to-night actually asked for food. I can rest in peace at last. Nurse Ida has the first watch, I come on at 5 o'clock to-morrow morning."
"Then you'll want all you can get of sleep," he said, rousing himself by an effort. "I mustn't keep you here."
"Rufus, you had my letter?"
"Of course. Oh! was that what you came in about? Yes, I had it all right. I'm not quite sure it wasn't a bit premature your letting out what you did. Sort of giving him a hint, you know. However, can't be helped now. The point gained is that you're on the ground."
"Do you think he will guess that we suspect something about this illness of Patience."
"Why certainly. The man would be a darned fool if he didn't take your threat to mean something. You've put him on his guard. It will be his plan now to let Mrs. Quarn get well. Then—we have to leave her at his mercy."
"Oh, my dear boy. I never thought of that. But stay, think a moment, Rufus. When she gets well, of which there's every chance now, she may decide on leaving him. I shall try my utmost to persuade her. She has been very unhappy—oh! for years past. She must surely see that it is no longer safe for her to stay under the same roof with this man."
"I hope she will see it, Miss Moneyash, or we've had our work for nothing. Seems to me you can never count on what a woman will do. She's loved him, and married him, and sacrificed herself for him. Perhaps, once she's well again, she'll believe it was all a mistake. He may persuade her to it. You forget she hasn't seen him yet. It strikes me that after what you said to-day he'll want an interview to put himself straight with her. If he talks her round—and I wouldn't bet against the chance, Miss Moneyash—well, if he does, she'll be none too fond of me, will she? It'll seem a poor climax. But it's a possible one."
Miss Lavinia shuddered. "Don't let us dream of such a thing, Rufus. I think I know Patience better than that. I don't say she hasn't forgiven, excused, condoned, again and again. But a woman, even a loving woman, can't go on doing that for ever. There comes one stage at which even pity halts. She knows it spells—Final."
The young man turned, and took both her hands in his, and stood for a moment looking down at the sweet, kindly face, the gentle up-raised eyes.
"I believe, Miss Moneyash," he said huskily, "that women like you and—and Mrs. Quarn, don't ever reach that stage. If any hand writes Final on your pages of Pity, it's the hand of death—no other."
He saw the tears rise and her eyelids fall. He released her hands, and then moved across the room, and opened the door. She followed him without a word. He too was silent.
They crossed the hall side by side. As they did so, the study door was suddenly opened, and the face of Dr. Quarn looked out. Its curious pallor and jet black hair were thrown up, cameo-like, by the lamplight behind him. It seemed but a second that they saw the face and the staring eyes. Then the door closed. They went on and up the stairs.
"That was strange," said Miss Lavinia, in a whisper.
"Very strange," answered Rufus Myrthe.
* * * * * *
The next day was Sunday. The first Sunday that Miss Lavinia had been absent from her post of duty at Perrycourt. That being the case she asked Rufus, in the morning, to limit his visit to an afternoon walk with Molly. He agreed. Neither did he go to Church.
The girl's wistful eyes saddened as she noted his absence, and she was unwontedly silent as they marched back to the Home.
Her companion Jess, who laid nearer claims to friendship than any of the other girls, rallied her on being "down" on account of the absence.
"Don't you take it to heart," she consoled. "That's the way o' them. Fever one day and don't-care-if-I-never-see-you-again the next. Treat 'em the same as they treat you or a bit worse. We usually have the worst of it once it comes to matrimony. 'Tis only fair they should have a taste of scornful dealings beforehand."
Molly Udale coloured. She was still sensitive to remarks based on the girl's interpretation of Rufus Myrthe's attentions. "I wish 'ee woudin't talk so foolish, Jess," she answered. "I've told ye he's nought o' that sort. 'Tis just brotherly kindness, no more."
Jess laughed satirically.
"'Tis what we all says, Molly Udale, but not what we thinks. Each o' us in our hearts keeps that sort o' feelin' a secret, till he says plump and outspoken what he's feelin' about us. 'Tis no manner o' harm bein' in love. A pleasant pastime. I wish I'd your chance, Molly. So we all do, plain and pretty, dark and fair alike. But then, such luck don't fall everyone's way. Handsome young bachelor-men comin' along and havin' you schooled and trained to a becomin' knowledge of wifehood; I suppose you'll go out to Meriky with him?"
"I've told 'ee there's nought o' that sort about it," returned Molly sharply. "And I do wish 'ee wouldn't keep on talking 'bout Mr. Myrthe. He's far above my station, and 'tis pure kindness only as made him take any manner o' notice o' me. Miss Lavinia told me that, and ne'er a thought otherwise 'ud ha' entered my head but for you gells keepin' on talkin' of him as you do."
"That's as good as sayin' it have entered your head."
"I don't think anything o' him save that he's been too kind to me. When he larnt what he's come hereabouts to larn there'll be nothin' more o' comin' to see me, or goin' Sunday walks."
"He's got to larn somethin' then; somethin' that you know, Molly?"
She nodded. "Maybe, and maybe not. 'Tis all written in letters like. I wanted him to read it for hissel, but he were too honorable. That's why I'm tryin' so hard to larn all readin' that isn't print."
"Well, I've wondered times enough why you was spellin' out an' pourin' over them old copy books. 'Tis a queer tale, Molly. How came you to have any writings as consarn him?"
"That don't consarn 'ee at all events, Jess Marlott," answered Molly, relapsing into her old way of talking as she always did when angered, or strongly moved. "Thee've asked questions eno'—now shut up."
Jess was about to retort, but she looked at her companion's face. It was so pale, so distressful, there was such a tremour and quiver about eye and lip that it silenced both wrath and curiosity. She had grown really fond of Molly Udale, and had no desire to spoil friendliness by an unimportant difference of opinion.
"Very well," she said, "keep your own counsel. Only I did think as we was friends eno' by now for secrets to be commonly discussed atween us. I'd not tell a word o' what you say to me to any other o' the gells. My word on't."
"I've nothin' to tell 'ee," repeated Moll wearily. "And I don't think, Jess, as I'm o' the talkin' sort. I've had none in my life afore to listen to me, nor care, and I've got used to thinkin' me own thoughts, and holdin' them to mysel'. When I look at you gells here, and listen to ye a-chirpin' and a-chatterin' for all the world like birds at seed-sowin', I know ye're just 'light-hearted 'cause ye're young, and ha'nt no dark years o' trouble at the back o' ye. But I'm different. And I can't change."
"No—don't," answered Jess earnestly. "For it seems to me, Molly, that there's plenty o' the likes o' us in the world, light and foolish, to be had for the askin', but you're not like that. And if ever it came to a matter o' choice between our sort and you, we'd ha' no chance at all. It's not only you're so beautiful, but there's the makin' o' a lady in you. Didn't I hear Miss Moneyash sayin' to the Matron that in two years time, if you went on improvin' as you're doin', no one would know ye for the girl o' the Peak that came here a month ago. I tell ye that straight for all ye're so secret to me!"
Though Molly made no response to that last flattering observation it was sweet as honey to the lips of incipient vanity. Not any unbelieving vanity, but one born of dawning intelligence, the open discussion of her various "points," the assurance that met her in the reflection of her mirror, or the envious looks of less favoured companions. Of beauty, as the one charm par excellence of her sex, the one prerogative that defies fate, fortune and circumstance, she had had no consciousness whatever. But lately she had learnt what beauty meant, and what it might win. The love and admiration of men; a place in the world; gifts of fortune. All good things in their way she was assured, and all in the power of her sex to win and hold, when well-favoured by nature.
When Jess helped her to comb out the tangles of her rebellious hair, and showed her its lovely tints by holding up a tress for the candle-light to shine through, when Suffolk Martha gazed enviously at her milk-white skin and the curves of her rounded arms, it began to mean something more than mere "fulishness." She noted other hair, other skins, other arms, and figures. There was truly a balance in her favour at such times! But that these prodigal gifts of nature should have any influence upon Rufus Myrthe, or win from him such frank, outspoken admiration as given by these roommates of hers, she never for a moment imagined. Yet on this Sunday afternoon when he had failed to put in an appearance at church or dinner, she found herself for the first time in a critical attitude. After all, what was she? Only a common girl, ignorant, uneducated, rough, course of speech. Why should he trouble to seek her society? What pleasure or interest could these Sunday walks have for him?
* * * * * *
The girls were all in the recreation-room after dinner, with books or Sunday magazines to pass away the time. They were not allowed to walk out unless the matron accompanied them, and to-day she had pleaded a bad cold as an excuse for not braving the sharp north wind a second time. Molly was sitting apart, trying to fathom the mysteries of "The Pilgrim's Progress" by the illustrations.
Suddenly there was a flutter in the dovecote. "Why here he is after all!" exclaimed one of the girls by the window. "Molly Udale, you're in luck again. Here's your young man called for ye."
Molly rose hurriedly and approached the window. The girls grouped themselves round her.
"He do look a fine, well-set-up young fellow!" said Martha Dilly. "I wish he was my cousin, that I do."
"Pity he hain't a soldier," added another girl, "so tall and straight as that. He'd be quite an ornament to regimental clothing."
"My tastes don't lean to soldiers," said Jess Marlott. "A stuck-up, untrustful lot! Thinking that every woman that turns an eye their way is bound to fall in love wi' them. No—a sailor's more to my fancy, or failin' that, a perliceman."
"Meanwhile, your cousin's awaitin' for you, Molly Udale. I s'pose you'll go walkin' as usual. Hard on us as we've no one to squire us about, Sundays or any other days."
Molly turned to leave the room. She made no reply to these remarks. She was conscious of a new and embarrassed feeling as she greeted Rufus, but he seemed to notice no difference. She thought he looked older, graver, sterner than when she had seen him last.
"You're not dressed to go out?" he said. "Didn't you expect me?"
"I didn't know," she answered. "There was nothin' said, an' you weren't at Church."
"No. I didn't go. And of course I didn't come to dinner as Miss Moneyash is away. But won't you run along and get your bonnet fixed, Molly? There's a rousing wind, but I surmise you're used to that. No, I won't come in. I'll wait here."
She ran upstairs to her own room, and tied the neat, prim little bonnet under her rounded chin, and hastily threw on the warm cloak that made the uniform of the Home. How good it was to have these two hours of freedom before her! For once she could afford to pity her imprisoned companions, and rejoice at her own meed of liberty.
She and Rufus Myrthe turned into the twisting lane that led towards the valley. The boisterous wind sent her cloak flying, and loosened her hair into lovely ripples about her white forehead, and curled it round the rim of her close bonnet, and blew richer roses into her cheeks. From time to time Rufus looked at her, but there was abstraction in his gaze, and he scarcely spoke.
When they reached a more sheltered spot he suddenly remembered he had not put the usual questions as to progress.
"How's school going, Molly?" he asked. "I hope it don't make any difference Miss Moneyash not being there. She told me to say she'd expect you to be as diligent as ever."
"I think I've bin that," answered the girl. "I can really read plain writing now. And since I've took to speak slower-like I get round the words better. It's hard to drop into new talk all at once, but I'll not give up tryin'."
"No—don't," he said. "There's an amazing difference already. I like your voice, Molly, and the way you say some words is quaint. I'd be sorry you should alter. But all the same nice-spoken speech has a charm of its own."
"Same as ladies speak?" inquired Molly.
"Oh! that's a natural born thing. I don't ever expect you to get as far as that. Besides it wouldn't be any use, would it?"
"I s'pose not," she answered slowly. "I wanted to tell 'ee—you, I mean, that I've learnt a lot o' writin' words, by the gells old copy books. So t'other night I took up some o' those scraps o' paper as mother was allays scriblin', and I could make out some words quite plain."
There was apprehension in his quick look, but her eyes held no history of shame or trouble yet.
"Was there anything very particular," he asked, with assumed indifference.
"There were a name came two or three times into the writin'. It seemed to me kind o' strange cause I—I remember——"
She paused for a struggle with a boisterous gust of wind that suddenly whirled her cloak above her head. His hands caught and pulled it down, and folded it about her.
It was the first time he had touched her in so close proximity. The feel of his hands on her shoulder made her heart throb in a sudden wild tumultuous fashion that frightened her. She drew herself sharply away. The colour flowed into her cheek, and ebbed back through every thrilling vein. Then she felt sick and cold, and wretched all in one.
He noticed both look and action, but had no comprehension of their meaning.
"Your bonnet's gone crooked," he said simply, and stood still beside her while she straightened it, and tried to push the red gold curls and tendrils under its protecting brim.
"I'd let them be," he said. "I never saw such beautiful hair as your's, Molly. Many a great lady would envy you for it!"
Again she blushed. He was actually saying the very words the girls had spoken; saying them as they had told her any young man with eyes in his head would be "certain sure" to say them. But she had no answer ready. Her embarrassment was new and painful, and left her what she afterwards termed "a shaken fule."
"But you were saying," he continued, moving on once more to suit her suddenly quickened step.
"I—forget," stammered the girl.
"It was about something you had read—a name."
"Oh—yes—yes. I do mind it now, but this wind seems blowing words and senses out o' me."
"Wait then till we get into a more sheltered place," he suggested.
She hurried on, her head bent, her eyes seeking the ground. To him she had now become only part of a narrative. A page he longed yet feared to turn. His mind was troubled also, but for a totally different reason. The throbbing personality beside him concerned him less than the mystery centreing in and about her life. He waited until the winding road dived suddenly into a little dell, sheltered by rocky boulders, that were again hemmed in by a serried row of pines. A little stream trickled by the footpath, ferns and moss and undergrowth clothed the sloping banks.
Then he slackened his steps. "Now, Molly," he said. "I'd like to hear your story? Don't think me curious. There's more behind it than you or I dreamt of that time I got wet, and found you, like a guardian angel, waiting there in the Inn porch. Do you remember?"
Remember! Should she ever forget it, she thought. Ever cease to look at it as the birthday of her life!
"I mun—must—go back to what I were sayin'," she began hesitatingly. "The papers is all huddled up in a bundle, as you gave 'em to me. I took but one, the one with the biggest writin', thinkin' 'twould be easiest to read. So far as I can bring to mind it was a sort o' lamentin' like, an' over and over again it sed the name o' a poor mis'rable dwarf crittur, as I had used to see when I were but a little child an' mother 'ud take me walks along the moorside by oursen'. I'd clean forgotten all about him. But when I see—saw—the name, an' cud make it out, it all seemed to cum back. Japes 'twas. J-a-p-e-s. I felt that proud when I read it."
"And," he asked, "can you remember what more the writing said?"
"'Twas mostly about poor Japes, an' wrong done to him, an' a callin' down vengeance on summun' as wasn't named. An' then, small written, at th' end o' th' page came this piece: 'He—will—be—at—my—window—to-night—shall—I—tell—him?"
Rufus Myrthe was silent.
"I've got 'em written out at home," went on the girl. "Big, of course, same as I write the copies they give us schule-time. But you're comin' sudden-like to-day put it out o' my head. If so as—as you be comin' back——"
"No—no," he said hurriedly. "I guess, I'd better not see it, Molly. It's for your eyes if for anyone's. When your mother wrote that story she must have had a reason. You'll find out that reason some day. If—when you know it—you think you ought to tell me, then I'll promise to hear, and to help if I can. Sometimes I think I'll have to know it whether by your means or not. Sometimes, I feel, Molly, that no mere chance led my feet astray on that wild moor. But if anything's going to come of it—well, it'll come. That's sure."
"I often think," she said slowly, "what a happy chance 'twas for me that you did get astray that time. 'Twas the alt'ring o' everything—everything. An' I dunno why. You'd no call to trouble yoursel' about me. I've sed that always. I know more now than l know'd then. I've larnt some things as I never thought to larn, an' heerd others as puts th' meanin' o' life different to what I'd thought it. An' what it's meant I canna say. There's feelin's as springs up in one's heart, an' you can't name them. I've heerd what your kindness means by other lips—I want to speak o' my gratitude but—it doesn't seem deep enough——"
"Ah! Don't, Molly," he broke in quickly. "For heaven's sake don't get into any sort of fix that means sentiment and all that. I don't want you to look upon what I've done as any way out of the ord'nary. Had anyone else come round same way they might have done just the same thing. I only want to act fair and square to you, same as a brother might. For God's sake don't get notions into your head. Don't let those girls be sort o' heroising me in your eyes. It will be the greatest mistake you've ever made if you go setting me up, and thinking me a small Almighty in your life. There's no call for any such blamed foolishness. And don't you begin it. I do believe I'm a sort o' relation of yours. That's enough. If relations can't hang together, and help one another, why what in thunder was the good of giving us any?"
He spoke warmly, without choice of words, for he was excited, and in some measure annoyed. Of all things he wanted no superlative gratitude for his Quixotic actions. Of all things he desired no such sentiment as trembled on the girl's quivering lips, and showed in her uplifted eyes.
"That's the worst of women. They feel so much, and say so much," he thought. "A man just gives you a grip of the hand, and a look, and all's understood. I don't know why it is, perhaps because I've had so little to do with women, but I just can't bear them to get sentimental over things."
Her voice speaking again, but measured and controlled now, broke across that space of silence.
"I'll not tell you more o' th' story then, until I've made out its meanin'."
He looked at her, remembering that forgotten scrap in his satchel, remembering too what a tragedy it foretold.
The forces of life, long, stagnant, and inert, suddenly clamoured for re-admission within that half-shattered citadel representing Patience Quarn. She lifted herself on her pillows with new-born strength. She watched the daily miracle of sunrise and sunset with new interest, and new hope. She felt the warm and vital flood of health set loose in languid limb and pulse, and rejoiced in it. In five days she seemed to have regained what she had lost for five years. She slept, and sleep held no terrors, but was deep and dreamless. Food and nourishment were given her, and the dreaded nausea vanished. For a while she held thought and memory back by sheer force of will. Their time was not yet. With every throb of returning strength came return of resolution. Life had crystallised itself into a hard, clear-cut fact. She could no longer dream or dally with it.
Sometimes she awoke, and her serious eyes looked skywards where her windows faced; or she watched the changing space of blue and grey, or listened to the rain sweeping downwards to beat against her window-panes. And as she listened and watched she wondered why her very soul seemed still now; without a thrill, a hope, a passion. She had undergone a change so complete that as yet it defied expression. Nothing in her previous experience of unhappiness had in any way approached this desolate calm. It was as if nothing could ruffle its ice-bound surface or pierce the depths below. Imagination and self-deception were dismissed from the stage they had so long monopolised. Plain fact, plain sense, plain truth, came trooping in their place. She was glad, she thought, to sweep the stage of those imaginary figures, glad to hear simple words and look clear facts in the face for once.
The scales had fallen from her eyes. She saw with shamed wonder the worthlessness of her long-worshipped idol. Saw, too, the girl she had been lying dead and cold; recognised the woman-birth within her that accepted life with a calm despair that yet was not altogether desperate.
After all, it is not well for women to have faith in ideals, though men seem to think so. The primal impulse of her nature is to worship the best in what she loves, and believe in it at all costs. When storm and distress and cruel disillusion would sweep away her clinging grasp, she fain would cover her eyes, and cry aloud to the darkness to hide her, lest she should see the shipwreck she herself had caused. Rather would she believe there was no wreck, that the ship had sailed on leaving her behind for some good and sufficient reason that she will know—some day.
But she is rarely suffered to cherish even that foolish hope. A man prefers to complete his work thoroughly. He leaves her in no doubt of the finality of the shipwreck, and then expects her to gather up the broken fragments and be content.
Sometimes she is. But also sometimes she is vouchsafed a flash of prophetic insight amidst all the chaos around. Then she stands aghast and wonders what she could have seen in that battered, rudderless, drifting hulk to have imagined it seaworthy even at its best.
But so strange and so complex is woman all in all, that it is not well to condemn her, even as it is impossible to analyse her.
Given ten women and one situation, it would be impossible to say exactly how nine would behave or take it. Even then the tenth might prove a striking variation.
Thus with Patience Quarn. A week back she had been content to die because of broken faith and love falsified. Also in a great measure because the man she had worshipped desired her death. Now, life had suddenly shown itself in a less personal and more important aspect. Also a tender friendship and a chivalrous service made some demands upon returning reason, placed her in a new position of responsibility; argued—"Are we nothing because he is worthless!"
One evening she was alone with Miss Lavinia. The nurse was resting in the adjoining room. The two friends had been sitting watching the firelight, and talking in soft, subdued tones. Patience had been moved that day from the bed to the couch. She was half-sitting, half-lying, against her cushions. The pink of her dressing-gown caught a rosy glow from the flames, and reflected itself in her cheeks, already fuller and less transparent than they had been for long.
"Lavinia," she said, suddenly. "How we have fenced and played with that question of which we both think incessantly. Let us face it at last. I must see him soon. He cannot always be put off with excuse, or look in when I am supposed to be asleep. Shall it be to-morrow!"
Miss Lavinia gave a little cry of horror. "Oh, no—no! You are far too weak. Why a month hence——"
"You think he will wait a month?"
"As long as you decide he must wait."
"I am not afraid any longer," Patience went on, in a low firm voice. "Not one atom afraid. Only utterly cold; utterly indifferent."
"Are you sure of that? Remember the power he has always had over you. Be certain he will endeavour to explain all this away. He will misrepresent us to you, Rufus Myrthe, and myself. Outwardly he seems the same, and treats us in the same manner, but I feel he hates us. And it makes me afraid, Patience. Afraid for you."
"It need not. I am so changed I hardly know myself again. He can never make me feel again, Lavinia. Love, fear, jealousy, pity—all are dead utterly, and for ever dead."
"And have you formed any resolution—any plan for the future?"
"I—I must not ask its nature?"
"Not yet, dear old friend, not yet. You shall know after I have seen him. But be sure I am not acting rashly, or without due thought. I have weighed the matter carefully, as well as possible results. In these days when I have fought my way back to life once more, I think I also found out what a narrow view of life a certain Patience Quarn has hitherto taken. She was never a woman of moods or changes. She walked rather in one path, with her eyes on a single landmark. But that path has widened and shown her the vastness and importance of the world around; and the landmark—has disappeared."
"But she was always forgiving," said Miss Lavinia, gently. "And when a specious penitent falls on his knees—what then?"
"Forgiveness is possible; but not forgetfulness, not extenuation. Not the resuming of life on the old ground of fellowship. That is where the new Patience comes in. The one with whom he has to make acquaintance."
Miss Lavinia looked earnestly at the pale and serious face. Yes—this was a new Patience. New to her as she would be new to her wrong-doer. A spirit brave and simply strong, that had come out of stress and storm winged with new courage.
She laid her hand on those clasped slender fingers, where glittered only the thick gold badge of a dishonoured and broken union.
"My dear," she said, gently, "I am sure you will do right. God help you! There is no easy task before you. You will need more than woman's courage to face it."
She felt the tremor of the slender fingers within her own. There was a long silence. For great emotions words are poor exponents.
To Miss Lavinia the marriage tie had always seemed a sacred and binding thing, not lightly to be taken up, not ever to be broken. Yet in this present instance what course could Patience follow? Would she break the tie? Free herself once and for ever? Surely, yes. In the delicate meshes of another person's difficulty decision is so easily arrived at. Caught within the meshes of one's own there seems to be a hundred courses of action, and not one feasible.
"Sometimes I have thought I would write," persisted Patience, following out the thread of her own thoughts. "But that might seem like cowardice. No, I will see him face to face."
They had been so engrossed by their conversation and their own thoughts that neither of them had heard the soft turning of the door handle from without. Neither of them were in any way prepared for the voice that chimed in with those last words.
"If that is your wish, my dear Patience, I am all attention."
Miss Lavinia's start was personified nervousness. Patience never moved. It even seemed to her that she was not surprised, but rather—relieved. Expectation has its hour of dread as well as of self-promised bliss.
"I heard you were sitting up to-day," continued the doctor's suave voice. "Needless to say, I wished to offer my congratulations. At this hour, our fireside hour, Patience, they seem especially appropriate."
She loosened her hand then from Miss Lavinia's clasp. The firelight, lower than her face, threw its lifted beauty into strong relief. The calm, steady gaze of the eyes that met his own struck with a feeling of strangeness to Felix Quarn's heart. For once they held no softness, no welcome, no love.
"Perhaps it is as well you came," she said. "I have something to speak about. I intended asking you for an interview. Will you—sit down?"
Miss Lavinia rose hurriedly. Since events were marching apace she felt her presence might mean embarrassment.
"I will leave you, Patience," she said. "Ring if you want—anything. The hand bell is beside you. Shall I light the lamp?"
"No," said Dr. Quarn, quickly. "There's light enough to talk by. I promise not to detain your patient long."
There was sarcasm in both voice and face as he took the chair Miss Lavinia had vacated. He bent towards the fire, and roughly broke the glowing coal to flame. A red light flashed upwards and forwards, dyeing his face, and his long, white hands. He threw himself back as if to evade its tell-tale betrayal, and again his eyes turned to the reclining figure. The door closed on Miss Lavinia. They were alone for the first time since his momentous absence.
"So you are really better, stronger? Well, that is good news!" he commenced, with forced cheerfulness of tone.
The pallor of strong feeling tinged her face and lips. Her eyes rested for a moment upon him. It seemed to her as if they looked at an empty frame that had once held a cherished photograph. All substance, light and shade that had meant "likeness" had vanished. Her mind's eye filled in the portrait and knew itself a false artist.
Then suddenly she caught the echo of his words, and seized upon them to control her straying thoughts.
"Is it—good news?" she asked. "I can hardly believe your heart voices your congratulations, Felix."
"What do you mean? I suppose you have been listening to that chattering old maid, and accepting all sorts of false statements, misrepresentations? She came and bullied me about your illness as if I were the cause of it! Only that she was your friend, Patience, and that you were in a critical condition, I should have ordered her out of the house."
"You allow that I was in a critical condition?"
"I was told so."
"And for saving me, and helping me when you had left me to die, for indeed I have looked death in the face, you would have banished the one human creature who came to my aid?"
"I—I do not understand you," he said, huskily.
"I think you do, Felix."
Her voice was calm, unmoved, but tense with firmness of purpose.
"I think you do. Is it not somewhat strange that my health began to improve the moment I ceased taking your medicine?—submitting to your treatment?"
Though he had expected, schooled himself for some such accusation, he could not quite conceal the quiver of fear that flickered over his face.
"Do you know what you are saying?" he blustered. "Is this meant as an accusation of improper treatment, or merely some hysterical fancy, fostered in your mind by foolish women—your friend, and that nurse she brought? I defy them—you—anyone to prove such a thing! My treatment was perfectly correct. My remedies absolutely harmless. Your own hysterical condition was alone responsible for—for——"
"Almost—fatal consequences?" she suggested.
"Nonsense! There was no such danger! Had I been here——"
"It has occurred to me to thank Providence more than once that you were not here," she said. "But let us not waste time over idle fencing, Felix. I am not yet strong enough to bear prolonged agitation. The question is easily settled. You, I suppose, have no objection to my sending that last bottle of medicine (I think half remains) to an analyst, and requesting a report of it."
His face changed then. The pallor turned to livid grey, awful to behold. Cowardice and self-preservation were important factors in the nature of Felix Quarn. She saw his eyes glance furtively to shelf and table, and her heart grew sick and cold within her. In sixty seconds of silence she lived a lifetime of pain.
"You—you don't answer?" she said. "Am I to believe—oh, I can't say it. It is too horrible!—Felix, what have I ever done that you should have treated me as an enemy? That you should have put your own life in jeopardy for the sake of freedom? There were other ways—safer ways. I—I would have given you your liberty had I known you so keenly desired it. You might have had my money, even more than I have already given. Had you frankly said to me I was an obstacle in your path, something you hated, and were weary of, I—I think I could have understood. But in all these years with you I can recall nothing that deserved such a crime as you plotted against my harmless life."
He rose then. Shame and anger made him fierce and desperate too, since, now there was no possible concealment, nor subterfuge, nor lie that could convince her.
"I—I was sick of you!" he cried. "I confess it. You poor puling, white-faced thing. I had wasted enough of my life with you. Self-sacrifice is not my ideal of marriage. I would have thrown all up, left you, but for——"
"You need not tell me," she said. "I am dishonoured by many rivals. But only one of them has had the power of changing you from an indifferent husband into a dastardly criminal. Be thankful, Felix, that you have been saved in time. A week—another week, only seven little days, and I should have been beyond the reach of your hatred, and you beyond the power of my help."
"I—I fail to see that," he said brutally.
"Someone—knew what you were giving me. Purest accident, but to me God-given chance, put that person on the track of discovery; the only one who could prove the nature and effects of that drug."
He stood quite still, his face averted. Between his teeth he muttered, "That damned American!"
"Well," he said again. "What's to be done? How do you propose, to act? Let's throw all this damned sentimentality out of the question. Only first I'll swear that drug isn't poisonous. It suits some constitutions. I—I can't tell why it shouldn't suit yours. But let that go by."
"Yes," she interposed. "It is such a mere detail to consider why you did not cease administering it when you found I possessed one of the constitutions it did not suit."
"You were always great at words," he sneered. "Fine sentiments make up for poor actions. Anyhow, there's no harm done. Perhaps it is as well things have come to a climax. I—I couldn't have borne this life much longer."
She thought bitterly of her life, of what it had been, and how she had borne it. Into her eyes crept that look of unfathomable sadness which of late had replaced tears. Then they drooped and fell upon her clasped hands, and the shining gold of her marriage ring. What false words, false love, false vows, it represented now! Quietly she removed it from her finger and held it out to him.
"There is no need for you to bear that life another day, another hour, Felix," she said calmly. "If I had become only a temptation to crime, the sooner I am out of your reach, your sight, the better. Had I been strong enough I should have left here before this, and all future arrangements would have been communicated to you through my lawyers. You must leave——"
He started. Anger and hate flamed into his eyes. He caught her outstretched wrist with a vice-like grasp. "You turn me out. You shame me publicly? You give this story to the world!"
His face was so horrible with rage and malevolence that she shuddered back from it and tried to free her hand. The ring fell to the ground and rolled softly away.
"You—hurt me," she gasped. "I am not strong yet."
"You were strong enough to plot all this, damn you!" Suddenly he released her hand.
He tried to calm himself, to choke back the furious words that surged to his brain. "Is it divorce you mean?" he asked savagely.
She shook her head. "You have put that beyond my power and your own. Freedom I will have; but it must be freedom without scandal; if possible without shame."
He grew calm. A possible salvation still loomed ahead. "Put it plainly, if you can," he said.
"Not now," she said faintly. "I will write. I have formulated a plan. But go now, Felix, I am exhausted. I can bear no more."
He saw her sink helplessly back on the pillows. A spasm of murderous rage seized him. One hand was at her throat. But the other struck by chance the little table on which Miss Lavinia had placed the silver hand-bell. It fell to the ground, ringing clearly as it did so. In another moment the dressing-room door was flung open. Nurse Ida stood there, a candle in her hand. She held it up, and threw its light across to where that bending figure stooped above the couch. Then she came quickly forward.
"I thought Mrs. Quarn called me," she said.
He drew back. He strove for calmness, for speech, for self-control.
"She seemed a little faint," he stammered. "Have you restoratives at hand?"
Without a word she pushed him aside, and bent over the motionless form. The head lay back, with the white throat exposed above the falling laces of her gown. On its snowy, ivory surface was stamped the impress of that frenzied grip. A red swollen mark that told its own tale.
The nurse turned, and looked him in the face.
"Send Miss Moneyash here," she said. "It's no place for you!"
Like a beaten hound he crept away towards the door.
The nurse and Miss Moneyash talked in hushed and indignant voices over the averted catastrophe.
The nurse had nothing but horror and indignation to express. "I was half asleep," she said. "The sound of talking roused me. Angry words and her pleading, so it seemed to me. And then the fall of the table. His hand was at her throat as I came in. Another moment and it would have been too late."
The little old lady shuddered and paled. "He is more like a savage brute than a man," she said. "Well, we have had a lesson. He must not see her alone again. Ah! my poor Patience!"
Her tears fell rapidly. She looked at the pale, exhausted face on the pillows. Horror and hatred of Felix Quarn overpowered all expression.
Meanwhile Felix Quarn was shut up in his own study. All feeling save that of murderous hatred submerged by that temporary madness that makes men criminals for the time being.
There was no one connected with this overthrow of his, whom he would not willingly have consigned to unutterable torments at that moment. Rufus Myrthe, Miss Lavinia, the nurse, Patience herself. They were, to his frenzied brain, all enemies, schemers, obstacles, that he longed to sweep from his path. A crowd of opposing forces deserving nothing less than annihilation.
He was a man of far too violent passions to be controlled by reason when these fits of savagery overtook him. At such times he was indeed nothing less than a dangerous lunatic. Physical violence would have relieved him at the present moment, but only inanimate objects offered themselves for the purpose.
He broke the ivory paper-knife that his wife had given him, and thrust it and many another pretty gift and trifle on his writing-table, into the fire. He heaped prescriptions, letters, and bills on the top at them, and the roaring of the flames only seemed to fan his fury into fiercer torment. Like a caged animal he paced the room, overthrowing every article that impeded his progress. To and fro, to and fro, his hands clenched, his eyes fiercely glaring from side to side; all the costly, beautiful things gathered here for his comfort by her love and thoughtfulness, speaking out but one word, "Fool!"
Fool he knew himself; utter, immeasurable fool! He had gained nothing and lost all. He was dependent on the bounty of a woman, and he had turned that woman into a relentless foe. Twice he had essayed her life, and twice failed. Fool! and fool again. For now he had lost all chance of making terms. Now he and his wrecked fortunes and dishonoured life were again cast to the winds of chance. There was little hope that the capricious goddess would favour so ungrateful a suitor twice over. He had flouted her too outrageously. Reckoned too surely on success, while yet the victory hung trembling in the balance of events.
From red heat to white, from fury to self-pity, his wild thoughts ranged, and his wild blood beat in heart and pulse and throbbing temples! Baffled, yet still irresolute, he threw himself down on his familiar chair, his sullen eyes beat sullenly on the coals, his lips quivering with a weight of muttered words.
Across that insensate outburst fell the familiar sound of the dressing-gong. Through the silence of the hall came hurrying steps, and chattering voices. Again he gnashed his teeth with silent rage. This time to-morrow where would he be? Dethroned, exiled, cast out. Held up to scorn and opprobrium, saved only from a worse fate by the mercy of the woman he had so deeply wronged.
He remembered Miss Lavinia's words. He remembered that look in the nurse's eyes, the cold contempt in the nurse's voice. Oh, fool, fool! And yet again fool! in that he had so betrayed and condemned himself, when policy and prudence counselled such a different course. He had not only suffered discovery, but he had burnt his few remaining boats behind him.
He stamped on the floor, and curse and oath burst forth again. The coarser and more brutal in that they were the one sincere utterance of his heart, and flew and echoed round the room like evil birds seeking resting-place and finding none.
"She will write; she will dictate terms! Faugh! Has it come to this! The poor, weak toy I despised too much even for a plaything! To face me with her decision, to crush me with her scorn! Damnation take her, and all the canting crew who have put her up to this."
He flung up his head suddenly. Then once more rose and commenced that feverish pacing. His thoughts were on a new track now. There was still someone in the background on whom vengeance might fall. He was recalling by a strong effort certain words Patience had uttered. They came back with a meaning attached. "Someone knew what you were giving me!"
His mind ranged from one to another of possible informers. Invariably it stopped at one.
There was no proof. Nothing but an incipient hatred dating from acquaintance of cunning with candour, treachery with honest dealing. Nothing but suspicion. Yet his darkest glance fell on that face he conjured up, and the foot he stamped and ground into the carpet, crushed and trod all semblance of life and youth from its imaginary helpfulness.
"Curse his damned meddling. From the first I distrusted him. He was for ever hanging round her. She was a different creature from the day he came here. And it was that officious old maid sent him. Her spy—maybe. God! If Patience should have given him that last bottle of stuff to be analysed—I'm lost."
Terror once more usurped the place of anger. He grew cold and sick. "And everything's lost with me. Money, fame, position, love. I can't cheat myself into any other belief."
Again the gong sounded. He lifted his head and swore at its senseless summons. He saw his distraught face in the glass, and met his own gaze as if it were that of a stranger. They would be all trapesing into the hall, chattering, laughing, like foolish jays. Ignorant of the tragedy that he was facing in this dreadful solitude.
He knew they would wait for him, wonder he did not appear. But to-night it was beyond even his powers of dissimulation to face and meet them on the old ground of doctor and patient. To-night he felt that if he sat there at the head of his table, and caught sight of that young, purposeful face, and heard the ringing tones of Rufus Myrthe, he would rise and stab him to the heart in one overmastering impulse of jealous rage such as already had seized him in its grip. The idea pleased him. He toyed with it, clasping and unclasping his fingers about an imaginary weapon. The knife that lay before his vacant place. He was a murderer by intent. By every force of will. Passion surged wildly up once more, and beat aside the craven fears that had thrust it away.
In that moment something whispered to him how sweet was revenge, and how easy. He seemed to be once more listening to that tale of the Inn. To see before him the dreary expanse of barren moor, the deserted mine with its evil reputation.
And like a flash he seemed to see one spot amidst all that blank and desolate region. One place where crime might stalk unknown and unsuspected. Had it not done so for years? Might it not do so again?
His hand swept the disordered hair from his wet brow. The voice came closer. It seemed as if a visible presence were at his side, its sibilant whispers pierced to his clouded brain.
He turned his eyes from side to side.
"Dare I?" he was answering the voice. "Dare I—again?"
A knock at the door startled him. He turned white as if some power he had blindly invoked had chosen to answer the summons.
"What is it?" his muffled voice asked.
"Dinner, sir. They are all waiting. They wish to know——"
"I cannot come," he cried hoarsely. "I am not well. Let them dine without me."
He heard retreating steps. The room seemed to grow suddenly dark. But it was only for a moment that his senses swam, and he reeled like a drunken figure on a stage. Then as suddenly he was cool and calm once more.
"At least I can have my revenge—on both!" he cried with a sort of savage triumph. "And now for rest, sleep. I must keep hold on my senses to-night. I shall need them at their best to-morrow."
He unlocked a drawer in his table, and took out a bottle containing a dark liquid. He measured some drops into a medicine glass and drank it off and threw himself on the couch. In a few moments there was no sound in the room save his laboured breathing.
There was openly expressed wonder at the doctor's absence. Rufus Myrthe alone felt it to be a relief. As yet he was ignorant of the scene between Patience and her husband. Miss Lavinia had not left her friend's side for a moment, even after recovery of consciousness. Patience made no allusion to what had passed. She had, in fact, no recollection of the frenzied violence that had so nearly been fatal. Strong emotion had taxed her yet feeble strength. She was mentally and physically exhausted.
The nurse got her back to bed and administered a soothing draught. Then sleep came mercifully to her aid and her watchful attendants lowered the light, and sat by the fire talking in whispers over the averted catastrophe. Miss Lavinia felt for once that concealment was useless. She told Nurse Ida what indeed she had long guessed, that the doctor had attempted his wife's life by means of some slow and subtle poison. Horrified as the nurse was, she had seen and heard too much of the seamy side of matrimonial life to be altogether surprised.
For physician and attendant the sick room holds no illusions and few secrets. Nurse Ida was a quiet, self-restrained woman. One who had suffered heavy trouble, and known the bitterness of loss and sorrow.
"She ought not to live under the same roof with the man," she said, as Miss Lavinia ceased speaking. "Why, in her weak state, had I been half a moment later she would have been dead."
The little old lady shuddered. Such horrors as these were altogether too tragic for her simple life. Her nerves were already suffering from the shock and strain. A masked foe stalked ever between these locked doors and threatened her vigilance at any moment. She would have given anything to get Patience away out of the house or reach of her would-be murderer. But in her present condition she felt that to be impossible.
She and Nurse Ida had their dinner sent up to the dressing-room. Miss Lavinia was too nervous to be left alone, and they did not wish to take the resident nurse into their confidence.
After the dinner-hour was over the little old lady despatched a note to Rufus, begging him to come to her. He received it as the party were entering the drawing-room. A swift presentiment connected its hurried, anxious words with the fact of the doctor's absence. He left the circle abruptly, and ran upstairs to the boudoir, as Miss Lavinia had desired. It adjoined the bedroom on one side. The three rooms had all communicating doors so as to suit the invalid when she passed from one to the other.
The little lady fluttered in before he had had time to signify his presence. Her very cap betokened agitation.
In a few broken words she related what had occurred. The recital held him speechless with indignant horror. His handsome young face grew ghastly as he pictured the narrowness of the escape—the dastardly attempt of the man for whom his hatred had been instinctive from the first.
"What's to be done?" Miss Lavinia concluded. "My nerves are quite shattered. I tremble at every sound. I think of trapdoors, and hands from behind the curtains dropping poison in her glass, and every imaginable horror like one reads of in Dumas' novels. I wish you would stay near us to-night, Rufus. In this room, will you?"
"Certainly I will. I don't care what anyone says, or thinks."
"But, stay," she went on. "The other people would think it so strange. Don't please let them know. It seems dreadful to think of appearances, but for her sake we must. Let all be as usual till eleven o'clock. You say the doctor did not come in to dinner?"
"No. I guess even his brazen effrontery couldn't face us all to-night."
Suddenly his voice changed. Its calmness was shaken by the suppressed storm of emotion welling within his heart. "Miss Moneyash, I can't bear this much longer. Someone should stand up in her defence. You say there's no man to do it. Then by——"
Her hand lightly pressed his arm.
"No, Rufus. No, my dear boy, not yet. Not unless she desires it. Remember she has a reputation to keep up, and then this establishment must be considered. Think of all the money sunk in it! And the awful scandal it would be. No, no! Patience has a plan, and we must wait to hear it. There's only one day more, one night indeed, between us and that knowledge. Better he should learn his sentence from her. No one can interfere between husband and wife unless one or other appoints such interference."
"I'm getting sick of this game of caution. What's the opinion of a handful of people, of anyone, the whole world, in comparison with her life!"
The little lady gave him a quick, startled glance. Something in his voice, his face, struck to her heart with a fear as yet unknown. Could interest, friendship, concern, work such misery as this?
The gay, good humour, the self-reliance, so characteristic of Rufus Myrthe had quite deserted his expression. He looked aged by years of anxiety. Why should he care so much, she asked herself?
Then she spoke. "To us, Rufus, it may seem so. But one incautious action may do immense harm, harm that we can never again undo. It is for her to speak, for us to obey. You must not let a natural indignation run away with your common-sense, my dear boy. Heaven knows what I have felt, borne, through all these dreadful days, but I can still wait, still trust in God. His hand will show us the way, Rufus, depend upon it."
Rufus was silent. He felt too deeply for words to be easy now. He recognised that the part he was playing in Patience Quarn's life was no longer a thing for impersonal consideration. It touched him more nearly than any previous experience.
His primitive impulse was to challenge the man with his infamy. The fact that he had no right to do so was a secondary consideration. Was any right necessary save the natural indignation of justice and common sense?
"Well, look here, Miss Moneyash," he said at last. "Will you ask her if I may act for her in this matter? Tell her to look upon me as a brother. I'd do anything, anything she wishes. But to sit here in cold blood, and see that villain making one attempt after another on her life, well, that's too hard a task. It's not in my line, Miss Moneyash. I was never patient."
"So much the more reason you should not make a mistake, Rufus. I promise to tell her all you have said when she wakes to-morrow. The sedative should bring her eight or ten hours sleep. It usually does. Then she will be stronger, and able to hear what I must say. I doubt if she knows of his attempt to-night."
"I wonder what the beauty is doing?" exclaimed Rufus Myrthe savagely. "Locked up there with his poisons and his schemes. It is getting intolerable to me to remain under his roof."
"Try and remember it is her roof. That will make it easier."
He looked at the gentle old face, and his own softened. "You are good," he said, "You seem to carry about a stock of consolation for everyone."
"If I've consoled you, Rufus, I'm content. You're nothing but a big, lovable, impetuous school-boy, for all you're so strong, and think yourself so wise. And now I'm going to send you away. I don't want those people downstairs to imagine anything has happened out of the common. I shall expect you here at eleven o'clock. You can put up with that couch, can't you, if you want to sleep?"
"Miss Moneyash—now I do say!"
She laughed despite her trouble.
"I know, my dear. I wasn't really in earnest. The feeling that you are there will give me the greatest comfort. Oh! I hope and pray, Rufus, this may be the last night of anxiety. I'm simply a bundle of nerves. Surely to-morrow she will insist on his leaving the Hall, at least until she can do so herself."
* * * * * *
That was a strange night to Rufus Myrthe. It was so wonderful that he should be in that sanctuary of hers, the holy of holies, where his heart had lingered in many a sacred memory. He looked at the couch where he had so often seen her lying. Her table, her books, her work, the faint perfume lingering about the cushions, all spoke of her with that eloquence of silent things at once sweet and painful.
For only in absence, or sorrow, or death do we recognise their eloquence.
Rufus would not have dishonoured couch or cushion by using them. They were far too sacredly hers not to be sacred to him.
The fire had been made up. A shaded lamp stood on the table. A large easy chair was on one side of the fireplace. There were books and papers put ready for him by Miss Lavinia's thoughtfulness. A sheet of paper on the mantelpiece bore the words—"Smoke if you wish"—and brought a smile to his lips. He remembered that special feminine and motherly trait of the little lady's. Consideration of trifles concerning health or comfort even in critical situation's. All the same he knew it would seem to him little short of sacrilege to smoke his briarwood in Patience Quarn's boudoir.
He took the chair by the fire, and sat down with a book in his hand. But he made no attempt to read it. The brain was too excited, his thoughts too preoccupied, for the mere perusal of any printed matter to induce attention worthy of the name. Besides, every nerve was strained and alert. He could not understand why Dr. Quarn had made no sign. He had never left his study, for Rufus had inquired of the servant whether her master had retired. "No," she had said. And the study door was still locked, and the light burning. But the doctor had always given strict orders that he was not to be disturbed, so no one had knocked since dinner-time.
His eyes turned to the communicating door between the rooms where Patience lay, guarded by her faithful friend, and this one, where he sat alert and watchful. It was midnight now, and the house was wrapped in silence. The light burnt still in the corridor without, and illumined the stairs sufficiently for anyone to come up or go down should it be necessary. He knew that if Dr. Quarn left his study he must hear him pass this room, and ascend the next flight of stairs to the bedroom he had occupied during his wife's recent illness. But as yet there had been no sound, no sign.
The clock in the hall chimed one. Rufus Myrthe rose and stretched himself, and then softly opened the door and looked out. The lamp still lit corridor and staircase. He leant over the balustrade. The hall was in darkness. A faint streak of light, like a phosphorescent line shone across one portion of it. It was the reflection of the light within the study, stealing underneath the door. Rufus watched it for a few moments in fascinated silence. It showed the occupant of the room was still there. And again that curiosity as to what he was doing, and what had kept him there these many hours, crossed the young man's mind, and became a tormenting riddle he longed to solve.
Tired of watching he at last crept back to the boudoir, and closed the door softly behind him. But soft as was the noise it must have reached Miss Lavinia's ears. She stole to her side of the communicating door, and opened it about an inch.
"Are you there, Rufus?" she whispered.
"Yes. I hope I didn't disturb you?"
"I heard the door shut. I was afraid you might have gone downstairs."
"No. I only looked over them."
He was standing close beside the opening. He too only spoke in a whisper. "He has not come up. The light in the study still burns. How is—she?"
"Sleeping soundly. She hasn't moved. Why don't you turn the key in the outer door, and get a nap, Rufus?"
"I can't sleep to-night. The air seems charged with electricity."
"Well, good-night," she whispered, "or rather good morning. It will soon be daylight."
He went back to his chair, and put another pine-log on the fire. Then he took up a magazine from the pile beside him, and idly turned the leaves, looking at the illustrations. He was interested enough to commence a tale. It engrossed him, and he read on page after page to the final denouement. As he reached the end the distant sound of the clock, lessening another hour of his vigil, struck again on the silence.
He leant forward and mended the fire, using no poker for fear of disturbing the inmates of the room beyond. It was chilly now, and the lamp seemed burning dimly. Also, for the first time, a feeling of drowsiness began to creep over him. He shook himself and rose and tried to fight against it. He had determined to take no sleep that night. He was annoyed that his powers of resistance should prove weaker than his will. He would have liked to take advantage of that permit on the chimney-piece, but he resolved on self-sacrifice on that point. To make it less a temptation he took up a strip of paper and threw it on the fire. In a moment it was burnt to ashes. Then he commenced a slow, measured walk up and down the room. His felt slippers made no noise. As he approached the door leading to the bed-chamber he paused to listen. All still, all quiet.
Suddenly he heard the noise of rain pattering against the window. Then the wind rose, and there was a sound of rustling branches, and moaning sighs. He lifted the blind and looked out into pitchy darkness. Sky and stars were blotted out. Only a veil of black stretched between him and what meant garden, and grounds, and the wide range of hills beyond. He was about to drop the blind when a little trickle of luminance caught his eye. Something bright, snaky, waving over the ground. A light thrown forth, and patterned by moving boughs, and streaming rain.
"It must be the study light," he thought. "He too is not going to bed. What a dismal night—and how long!"
He dropped the blind with a little shiver, and again commenced his pacing.
"I shall always associate this place with rain," he thought. "Almost everything of importance that has occurred to me, has occurred in this sort of weather. Dripping skies, howling winds; that swirl and splash of water."
He stopped again. It seemed to him his ear had caught some sound apart from the pattering of the rain drops. He listened intently. But all was still. The first storm gust had died away into the distance; a temporary lull ensued. He resumed his seat, and again went on reading as before that feeling of drowsiness swept over him. The day's excitement was reacting on his nerves. His eyes closed despite his will.
* * * * * *
At the last stroke Rufus woke with a violent start. Had he been dreaming? What sound had crept in between his benumbed senses and the sound of wind and rain.
He sprang to his feet.
"Someone opened a window—I'd swear——"
Rufus Myrthe stood perfectly still, every nerve strained to listen to any repetition of the sound that had aroused him.
All was silent.
He shivered. The room was cold, despite the fire, and the light of the lamp was failing. Again he bethought himself of the lighted corridor. Suppose he set the door open—well, even if the doctor should pass, should question his presence, he had an answer ready.
Acting on the impulse, with his usual impetuosity, he crossed the room again. He opened the door. The welcome light showed itself as before.
As before also he crossed the corridor, and looked down into the empty hall. Still, all dark; all silent. Further he leant; more intently he listened. The little narrow thread of light was no longer visible. Had it been suddenly extinguished, or had the doctor left the room, and come upstairs unnoticed, unheard by him.
His strained ears tried to catch a sound. He could have sworn they did catch one. So deep, so intense was the stillness of the house that everything seemed intensified by contrast. With an impulse he could not restrain Rufus ran swiftly down the staircase, and crossed towards that long-locked door. He reached it. He stood listening. There was a movement within.
His heart seemed to stand still, then it beat and throbbed like hammer strokes. The sound he heard was of laboured, stifled breathing, yet subdued and stealthy, came another sound, stranger, more horrible. The patter as of feet softly shod, yet moving as no human feet ever move. And then a moment's silence, and a low, chuckling laugh.
Rufus Myrthe stepped back a pace or two from the door at that uncanny sound.
Had Quarn gone mad?
The laugh betrayed no human mirth. In fact, it had scarce a human sound. He stood eyeing the door, striving to rid himself of an idea that some mystery lurked behind it.
"He must be there," he told himself. "I heard movements—steps. Yet there seems no light."
He was paralysed by indecision. Should he knock and ask if the doctor was there? Yet what business was it of his? As he stood arguing the point he remembered that one window of the study looked out on the grounds at the back of the house. It was low enough to be reached by any ordinarily tall man. If he went out, and round the house he might get a glimpse of the interior of the room. It was a chance, but perhaps better than disturbing the man himself.
Familiar now with all modes of egress, Rufus stole softly back and across the hall to where a swing door covered with baize shut off the servants' quarters. He struck a match, and by its light went down a stone passage. Finding a candle on a shelf there, he lit it, and left it burning. Then he softly drew the bolts of the back door, and opened it. The rain was falling heavily. All beyond was black and void.
He set the door open, and fastened it back by a catch at the bottom. Then he groped his way down the path, and round to where that window might be reached. He had only memory and instinct to guide him as he groped his way, touching here a bush, or there a tree, in the all-effacing obscurity. The Hall looked only a shapeless mass of black, little less black than the brooding darkness that shrouded it. But he crept on till suddenly a faint streak of light told him he had reached what he sought.
The window was before him, the blind was down, and it seemed as if a curtain had been drawn. A little glow of light showed through an opening between window and sill. Evidently it had not been shut down or fastened.
He raised himself on tiptoe and looked through the tiny aperture. But the heavy folds of the curtain hid the interior of the room.
Cautiously he passed his hand to the end of the window, and tried to draw away a fold of the heavy screening stuff. He found that impossible, owing to its weight and the smallness of the aperture.
His next thought was to climb on the stone ledge, but he feared the noise would attract attention. He bent his ear to the aperture to listen, but the noise of wind and rain and rustling branch made a conflict of confusion, and he could distinguish nothing. Uncertain what to do he stood there. A moment or two passed. Then the wind lulled. He strained every nerve to hear a movement within. But nothing was audible. Then quite suddenly the light was extinguished. He stood in darkness looking up at darkness. But as he looked the window was abruptly opened. Thrown wide as if for air or egress. Something leant out. Something indistinguishable in the darkness. Wondering if it was Quarn, Rufus remained motionless where he stood. Before he could formulate curiosity into certainty, the form seemed to gather about it some hideous human likeness, vague, indescribable, gigantic, yet dwarfed. It stood a moment on the stone sill filling up the aperture of the half-opened window. Then a cry broke from Rufus Myrthe. He dashed forward, but the thing with resistless strength met him, repulsed, and forced him back, and with a cry, horrible and haunting, sped away as if winged, clearing every obstacle by leaps and bounds that would have set pursuit at defiance.
Rufus sprang to his feet dizzy and half-stunned. The open window, the flapping curtain seemed eloquent of some horror within. He sprang up on the sill and dropped into the room, which was all in darkness.
He called Quarn's name. There was no answer. Instinctively he groped his way to the door, stumbling over furniture at every step. He found handle and key and unlocked it. But the light from the upper corridor was too indistinct to enable him to see anything in the room. He thought of his matchbox and struck a light. The little glow showed him a disordered room, a litter of torn papers, and a motionless figure on the couch.
But also he had seen candles on the high mantel-shelf, and hurriedly striking another match, he lit one and approached the couch.
The doctor lay there motionless as the dead. His white face, his staring eyes, his half-opened mouth, gave him a ghastly and horrible aspect.
Rufus set down the candle on the nearest table, and tore open the man's shirt and lifted his head. The head was heavy as lead, the skin he touched was icy cold.
Rufus laid him back on the cushion.
"Dead," he said. "From appearances I should say—strangled."
It was a gruesome sight; a gruesome situation. The muscles of the neck were swollen; deep marks lay pressed and stamped upon the livid flesh. Even now they were changing and growing dark like bruises, showing where a merciless hand had choked out life for ever.
With a shudder of natural horror Rufus Myrthe stepped back from the body. He asked himself what was best to be done. That this was murder there could be no doubt, and he alone knew the murderer. But a deeper horror underlaid his knowledge, for the secret of the wretched monster was in his possession. The secret of a cherished hatred for human life, for any male creature gifted with strength or good looks, or those attributes of physical perfection denied to himself.
What to do—now?
He asked himself that question helplessly, as he glanced towards the open door, from the disordered room to the motionless figure. The servants slept at the top of the house. They were all women, and would necessarily be hysterical or useless. He dared not disturb Miss Lavinia. The nurse, whom he knew as capable and strong-minded, was asleep in the dressing-room. To call her up would be to alarm the little old lady, perhaps to awake Patience. The gardeners only worked by the day, and he had no idea where the stableman slept.
He knew someone ought to be despatched for medical assistance. He could go himself, but meanwhile——
A noise at the door made him start. He turned and saw the resident nurse standing there. She held a candle in her hand.
"Mr. Myrthe—why, what's happened? I thought I heard a noise. The light was burning in the corridor. I came down and then saw the study door open."
"Something awful has happened," said Rufus. "I found Dr. Quarn lying here—dead."
She gave a little cry of horror, and hastily put down her candle. She went over to the couch and bent, as he had done, over the motionless figure, touching wrist and breast with mechanical impulse.
"Yes," she said. And then looked at the throat and the gruesome marks upon it. "My God! sir, do you see. The man hasn't died a natural death. He's been strangled."
"I know," said Rufus.
Her eyes turned from him to the open window, to his wet hair, and clothes.
"How did you get in?" she asked, suddenly.
"Through there." He nodded towards the window. "I was sitting up in the boudoir—Miss Moneyash had asked me—I wondered the doctor hadn't come to bed. I came down to listen at his door. It must have been three or a little past. I heard a strange noise and grew suspicious. I went round the back way, and came to his window. Suddenly it was thrown open, and someone jumped out. At first I thought it might be the doctor himself. Then I looked through the open window. The room was all dark. I called to him. There was no answer. I sprang through and lit a light. He lay there on the couch as you see him."
"You didn't call for assistance—do anything?"
"There was nothing to be done. I was just deliberating when you appeared. You know Mrs. Quarn is very ill. That Miss Moneyash is a nervous little person. If—if possible I didn't want them to know this till the morning."
The keen, cold eyes of the woman, scrutinised him coldly.
"It's a very strange story," she said. "Not but what there's been strange enough things going on at the Hall for some time. Well, sir, all I can suggest is that you go for Dr. Transom as soon as it's daylight. Nothing can be done. Of course, there'll have to be an inquest."
"I—suppose so," said Rufus.
"Didn't you try to stop the—the man who escaped? Couldn't you describe him, identify him?"
"I couldn't stop him for the very good reason that he threw me down, and when I picked myself up there wasn't a sign of a living creature. I thought perhaps it was the doctor himself at first."
"How could you have mistaken him for the doctor?"
"I'm not aware I've any call to answer your cross-examination," said Rufus, coldly. "I told you what had happened, and I reckon that's all I mean to tell—at present."
She was an officious and important person and the reply nettled her. Furthermore, she had been devoted to Dr. Quarn.
"It's very strange, that's all I can say," she answered. "But of course you know, Mr. Myrthe, you'll be questioned pretty closely. You're the only one who can throw any light on the subject. I cannot quite understand your not calling for assistance, even at the risk of disturbing Mrs. Quarn. Though of course we all know how devoted you are to—her."
"That was a nasty speech," thought Rufus Myrthe. "I wonder what she meant."
Whether Miss Lavinia had been asleep or not she certainly gave no sign of hearing the conversation below.
Rufus Myrthe went back to the boudoir and found the lamp had gone out. He closed the door softly, and went upstairs to his own room. In a few moments he returned, carrying his boots in his hand. It was now past 4 o'clock but there was no sign of dawn in the inky blackness of the sky.
He found the nurse had lit the gas in the hall and the dining-room. She was standing there when he came down.
"I'll go for the doctor," he said. "I'm pretty good at finding my way. But is there such a thing as a lantern? It would be a help."
"I'll see," she said, briefly, and went through the baize door into the passage beyond.
In a few moments she returned, a lantern swinging from her finger.
"I found a candle burning in the passage," she said, "and the outer door open."
"I know. I opened it," answered Rufus. "That's the way I went round. The study door was locked from inside as I told you."
She made no answer, but handed him the lantern. "I put a candle in," she said, as he took it. "Do you know the house where Dr. Transom lives?"
"Yes, the one with green shutters, standing back from the road."
He took his cap from the hat-stand, and went away.
He did not trouble himself about the woman, or her opinions. If she was infatuated with Dr. Quarn, like the other inmates of the Hall, there was no use in trying to convince her that he was infamous, and that, shocking as was his end, it held a measure of retribution.
He swung lightly and rapidly along the gravelled drive, and was at his destination in less than a quarter or an hour. The doctor answered his summons from the window, and then came to the door.
He listened in astonishment to the young man's story of the tragedy. Dr. Quarn was no favourite among his compeers, but to hear of his awful end was something of a shock, even to an indifferent acquaintance. He dressed hurriedly, and accompanied Rufus back to the Hall.
The young man told his story of the discovery as frankly as he had done to the nurse. That there should be anything unusual or improbable about it never occurred to him. Dr. Transom was a kindly, elderly, and unsuspicious individual. He listened, and wondered whether there had been any reason for Quarn shutting himself in in that fashion, till such an untoward hour. He also questioned Rufus as to the nature of the outrage. Had the motive been robbery, and was Felix Quarn the victim of resistance? But Rufus could not agree to that. The murdered man was lying quietly on the couch. The crime seemed to have been committed for its own sake. Of course, there was no knowing whether any money had been taken. But save for scattered papers on the floor the room had been undisturbed.
As soon as Dr. Transom entered the Hall, the nurse met him. She was well known to him, and after a word or two he followed her to the fatal room.
The body of the murdered man lay as Rufus had found it. Only the marks were more apparent now that the icy chill of death had stiffened limb and muscle. An examination was supererogatory. One glance told the history.
"There'll have to be an inquest," said the doctor. "I will give notice at the police station. Of course, Mr. Myrthe, as you alone witnessed the escape of the criminal, your evidence will be required. Can you give any clue as to his identity?"
Rufus hesitated for a moment. Then he looked up, and caught the cold, watchful gaze of the nurse. Something in that look made him uncomfortable.
"I think I can," he said. "But you must remember it was pitch dark. The figure threw up the window quite suddenly, and sprang out. I rushed forward, but was thrown back by the violence of the contact. When I recovered it had disappeared."
"It?" questioned Dr. Transom. "Surely you said a man sprang out!"
"No. A figure," answered Rufus. "And a queer one, too. A short, squat, dwarfish creature."
The doctor's eyes turned on him with surprise. Their survey of his herculean frame and splendid proportions gave forcible expression to the glance.
"Perhaps you had better reserve all particulars for the inquest," he said, stiffly. "Meanwhile everything had better remain exactly as it is till the Police Inspector has been here. I can do nothing more."
He stood for a moment looking at the rigid figure and marble face. Then he turned away.
The room looked dreary and cold. The table by which the dead man had sat so often seemed a silent witness of violence, for papers were scattered, blotting-paper torn, ink spilt. But the drawers were locked. A small iron safe fixed in the wall was also locked.
The doctor's thoughtful gaze took in these details, and turned again to the dead man. His coat was open. The glitter of watch-chain and seals caught the light, as did the ring on one finger of the hand that lay upon the breast.
"Evidently not robbery," he said, softly. "Ah! what does this mean!"
He had caught sight of the little medicine glass and took it up.
"Opium!" He turned to the nurse. "Was he in the habit of taking drugs, do you know?"
"I never knew him to take any all the years I have been here."
The doctor looked round again, searching for the phial that should have been visible.
"The keys are in that drawer!" exclaimed Rufus, suddenly.
He pointed to the lower drawer but one, where a bunch of keys was hanging. The doctor went up and opened it. The little bottle containing the stuff was there, just as Felix Quarn had thrown it. Dr. Transom held it a moment in his hand. Then he looked at the nurse.
"You can see how many doses have been taken," he said. "Evidently it was a habit. If so—well, he may have been sleeping there, an easy prey enough. It's certainly very—mysterious."
"Very," said the nurse. "There seems no object in anyone coming in through that window just to murder a sleeping man. What reason could he have?"
"That," said Dr. Transom, "is not our business. The whole affair is shocking and painful in the extreme. His poor wife! She is such an invalid, I have always heard. Of course she doesn't know?"
"Not yet," said the nurse, pursing up her thin lips. "But it can't be kept from her for long, I should say, however much people may wish it."
Again she looked at Rufus Myrthe, and this time the old doctor caught the look. He wondered what it might possibly mean. But he told himself it was no business of his. He had only had a superficial acquaintance with the owners of the Hall. Whatever mystery lurked behind this tragic death would be unfolded soon enough.
He took his leave, and went home as the grey chill dawn broke at last over that night of horror and crime.
* * * * * *
Day had broken rosy and clear, banishing rain clouds, and sweeping with swift cold breath over the sodden grass and shrubs.
Miss Lavinia opened the bedroom door and looked in at Rufus Myrthe. His face was so pale, so haggard and changed in aspect that she felt alarmed. Shutting the door behind her, she came to his side.
"You are tired, my dear," she said.
She caught his eyes. "Rufus, what is it?" she cried in terror.
"Try to bear what I've got to tell you—bravely," he said huskily. "It's pretty bad. And yet, kind of seems to me Providence has chosen His own instrument to work out her deliverance."
"Her—who? What has happened?"
"Promise me you won't scream, or faint, or anything. There you go,—you're as white as death already. Here, sit down. I wish I had some hot tea or something to give you, but I haven't."
He put her gently into the big chair, and took one of her hands and held it. Then in measured, careful words he repeated the story of that fateful night.
Save that the little lady shuddered, and her hand grew very cold, Rufus had no cause to complain of feminine weakness. Her face was awed and solemn. It seemed so impossible that freedom had come—like this.
Just as if any important event in life ever happens in the way we have looked, or planned for it to happen.
"Dead——" she faltered, as Rufus ceased speaking. "Is it possible—only a few hours since he attempted her life, and now——"
"His own has paid the penalty," said Rufus sternly. "It's but justice after all, if you but look at it. Can we say we're sorry—you or I? We may regret his awful fate, but who would have him back again here, to torment, and to lie, and to torture that poor martyr!"
The little lady shuddered. "You say there must be an inquest! How dreadful! Can you really swear to the criminal?"
"I can give a very good guess," he said.
"But why should anyone have come in in that way to attempt his life?"
"That life held many secrets, Miss Moneyash. We don't know how much cause he has given for vengeance, even as terrible as this. But don't you worry your head over this business more than you can help. You've got to bear up, and help Mrs. Quarn to bear up. And we must try and keep her out of the matter—and—and that interview between them. There's just a chance he may have poisoned himself by an overdose of that opium stuff found in the drawer—just a chance."
"But the marks you spoke of, the marks on the throat? Surely no one but a maniac would strangle a man already dead!"
"That's true enough. If—if the creature—ugh!" and he shuddered himself with the physical loathing that memory brought back, "—who did this can be found, it's not responsible. It's scarcely human. A monstrosity such as no nightmare ever conceived. I've seen it twice. Both times under horrible conditions, and I don't call myself a physical coward, but there's something scarcely human about this—thing. Almost it seems unjustifiable to track it down."
"What a task lies before you," she faltered.
"Yes, pretty stiff, isn't it? Inquest, information, capture, prosecution—God knows what! I've often wondered——" he broke off, then gave a little mirthless laugh. "Well, it's no good talking about it. Things have got to be as I've always told you. Only I ask myself, times, why I was brought here, to this country, to be plunged right into the midst of battle, murder, and sudden death, and—and a few other little things thrown in. I've asked it pretty often of late, Miss Moneyash. Seems I shan't get an answer for a long spell yet."
"The answer may come sooner than you expect. But don't rebel, my dear. Bear on a little while longer. What would two unfortunate women have done without you? I and Patience Quarn."
"Don't tell her till you can't possibly help," he urged.
"Of course I shall not. I will say he is ill first. Then break it by degrees. Surely her evidence won't be required?"
"I—I hardly think so. But you see I don't know how they fix these things up in this country. It's all so different. But now we've talked enough. You must go right away and get to bed and get some sleep."
"I'm afraid I slept last night," she said shamefacedly. "It was the thought you were near that made me feel so safe. I never heard a sound of any sort. It seems incredible such horrors should have been going on, and three people—Patience, Nurse Ida, and myself, all unconscious of the fact."
"Be glad you were," he said grimly. "I don't care if I never come across such a lurid collection again! There's plenty to come, and plenty that's been that I could very well spare."
Seated at their desks in the pleasant sunny schoolroom of the Home, the girls were working on steadily at various tasks, under direction of the mistress, who came at 10 and left at 4 o'clock each day.
But this was Saturday, and a half-holiday in prospect lent a little additional impetus to work.
Of them all none worked so seriously or with such a dogged facing of the obstacles scattered judiciously on the path of learning as Molly Udale. Saturday was always a day of joy to her. Was it not the forerunner of that other most blessed day in all the week? A day that touched some helpful pulse of life within her. That made the hateful drudgery of the past only a black shadow, receding further and further before the breaking of the dawn.
The passage of each week had marked the passage of change. Her soul had grown quickly in this new and peaceful atmosphere, and its growth was attended by no turbulent experiences. Nothing harsh, unlovely, or unkind. Friendly looks and words, friendly encouragement had all aided her in that struggle to rearrange her mind, and manners and opinions, consequent upon changed circumstances. Yet, as one side of her nature opened and enlarged, and flowed smoothly forth into pleasant channels, another was as sternly repressed. The wealth of passionate devotion, unconsciously called forth, and as unconsciously given, was still thrust into a secret chamber of her heart. She was afraid of it. Afraid of dazzling possibilities that might never approach her own mental standpoint, and yet were—possibilities.
To-day, when the signal of dismissal was given and the girls filed out one by one, she lingered a moment to ask some question of the teacher.
When it was answered she still stood hesitating. "Is there anything else you want to know, Molly?" asked the instructress kindly.
She had been watching the expression of the girl's face, the curl of the lashes sweeping the soft rose of her cheek, the lovely curves of the parted lips, and she was conscious of a little pang of feminine envy at so much beauty. Why was Nature so obtuse? What use were charms like these to one whose life lay amongst workers and plodders, sprung from the soil like herself.
The girl lifted her eyes shyly. "I seem so slow," she said, "and so fulish like. There's so much to be read and learnt and seen, and I'm naught but just a stupid piece, outside o' it all."
"Learning takes time. And you have a long pull up hill yet. But don't be discouraged. I think, considering the short time you have been at work, you have done very well."
"Thank you, ma'am. The writing do seem a bit easier."
"Does, I mean, ma'am."
"There are other things beside writing. Why are you so very keen on that?"
She was silent for a moment. Then she said: "I've summat—something to find out by means o' writing that consarns one who's dead. That's why."
"I see. And you cannot read the papers—or whatever it is, for yourself."
"No, ma'am, not yet."
"But surely someone, some friend—or Miss Moneyash herself—have you ever asked her?"
"I couldn't, ma'am. They seem a trust like, and I was told only to read them with my own eyes."
"Well, you must work a little harder at this special study. I am glad you told me. I may be able to simplify the means. It is only necessary to familiarise your eyes with the look of written words in order to read them, unless, of course, the hand-writing should be a very difficult one."
"It's small and close and skeery-like," said Molly. "But I've made out some, and each week I get more used to th' looks o't."
"Of it, Molly."
"'Tis main and hard, ma'am, rememberin' of correct ways o'—of—speech. But I thank you all the same for your trouble wi' me."
"That's all right. You're a very diligent girl. And I hope you won't fall off, for Miss Moneyash takes a special interest in you. Indeed I wonder your companions aren't jealous of your many privileges."
Molly went away then. She found an excited group of girls clustered in the entrance to the dining-room. The matron was there. The servant who was bringing in the dinner stood gaping and aghast. There was a whisper of horror, and yet of that unholy curiosity attending horrors, amongst them all.
"What is it?" asked Molly quickly.
They looked at her as if she were suddenly a person of interest, specially concerned in the matter.
"There's bin a murder!" gasped Martha Dilley. "Murder up at the Peak Hall beyond. The doctor, they dew say."
"Hush girls!" exclaimed the matron sternly "I didn't mean it to get to your ears if possible, not in this sort of way. The town is full of rumours. We—we can't believe them until the coroner's verdict is known. But it's quite true that Dr. Quarn was found dead in his study the day before yesterday. The inquest is to be held this morning. That is all that concerns you. Now go in to your places."
Silent and awed they moved away and into the room. The shock of the news was evident in many a paling cheek and quivering lip. Murder. Murder in this peaceful valley, and the murdered one well known and important. It seemed incredible at first. Molly Udale, who sat near the matron, longed to question her. But she looked so stern and preoccupied that she feared to do so.
The girls all knew that Miss Lavinia had been staying at the Hall to help to nurse her friend, Mrs. Quarn. It would not have surprised them to hear that it was the doctor's wife who was dead. But he, the handsome, picturesque figure that they knew so well, had met so often in the street, or lane, or church, that he should be dead . . worse—the victim of violence . . . it seemed incredible.
The meal was eaten in almost total silence, and it was a general relief when it was over. Then they went for their afternoon walk, but the matron took them right away from the town, or the possibility of hearing any more rumours or particulars.
"When your young man comes to-morrow, Molly, he's sure to tell you all about it," said Jess. "My! I'd give my two ears to know how 'twas done—and why. Such a handsome, proper man as he was, too! And so kind to that poor, sickly wife. Well, well, now it's one thing and now 'tis another. Aren't you dyin' wi' curiosity, Molly Udale? I know I am."
"Yes," said Molly, slowly. "It do seem so strange. I can't get round the manin' o't. A death, by nat'ral manner o' means is understandable, but—murder!"
She shuddered, and Jess kept her company. Thus conjecture went on as the short day closed in, and work and books filled up the evening hours.
Supper, prayers, bedtime. The old routine went on, and they took their well-ordered parts in it. But a consuming curiosity devoured their young minds. Who had committed the murder?
"I'll tell 'ee what, Molly—I've a thought in my mind as'll put us out o' suspense," said Jess Marlott, when she and Martha and Molly were at last in their bedroom alone. "I know as Jane Crickett had her evening out to-night, and she's sure to get hold o' the rights, and the inquest, and all that. I'll just slip up to her room when the lights are out and make her tell me. She and the kitchen-maid ha' the little attic-room up above. I'll find my way there. The matron won't hear; she sleeps so sound. Close my eyes this blessed night I couldn't unless I got the rights o' the story, and the murderer's name, if so be they've found out."
"'Tis given sometimes as 'person or persons unknown,'" said Martha Dilly. "I've read o' such cases in the papers."
"Well, known or otherwise, I be goin' to find out the full partic'lars o't."
Molly was sitting on the side of the bed listening. After all she had one concern only in the matter—Rufus Myrthe was at the Hall. Would this tragic occurrence affect him, or detain him. Would there be no red-letter day for her in this week?
She undressed, brushed and plaited her long hair, and got into bed. The girls stopped chattering and whispering. They heard the matron pass along the outer passage and extinguish the lights. They heard the sounds of bars and locks, of hurrying feet, of closing doors. Then silence fell, and with it the voices of Jess and Martha commenced anew their whispered confidences.
Molly was suddenly conscious of increasing drowsiness, and with it an indifference as to the result of the proposed breach of rules. She turned her back on the other beds, and in another moment was asleep.
* * * * * *
How long was it that she had indulged that blissful unconsciousness? It seemed to her as if hours had passed, when suddenly the sound of a voice startled her into wakefulness. She heard her own name, soft, then loud and insistent.
"Molly! Molly Udale!"
"Who's calling?" She sat upright, and looked across the darkened room.
"'Tis only Jess. Were you sleepin' or pretendin'? Molly, just do listen. I've been to see Jane Crickett and she's heard all. The town's agog wi' the story, she said. If it hadn't concerned you I'd not have woke you up. But there 'tis. I couldn't go to sleep to-night wi' such a weight o' untold terribleness on my mind."
"Stop so much explainin', do," exclaimed Molly pettishly. "Can't 'ee say what ee've got to say and be done wi' it."
"Well, then, listen. Dr. Quarn was murdered i' the dead o' night as he lay sleepin' in his own library-room at the Hall. And the Coroner's jury's sat to-day for examination so to speak o' th' cause and circumstance. And t'was brought in 'Wilful Murder.' Molly Udale, 'twas a terrible great shock and I'm feared you'll feel it. The folks say as how 'twas your young man, Rufus Myrthe, as done the deed!"
The girl sprang from the bed to the floor and stood there trembling in a passion of indignation and disbelief.
"How dare 'ee, Jess Marlott? Rufus Myrthe—Murder! Why ye'll be sayin' as you or I, or Miss Moneyash, be murderers next."
"Don't ye speak so loud, Molly, and do get back to bed, or else come into mine while I tells the tale. You'll catch cold standin' there."
The girl came forward and seated herself at the foot of the bed. She was shivering, but not with cold, only with rage and suppressed feelings, and a longing to give the lie to anyone who should dare assert what Jess Marlott had told her was rumour.
Jess threw the quilt over the shaking figure, and drew a blanket round herself.
She continued: "It do seem a ghastly and a fearful thing, Molly, but sartin is 'tis true. They say as young Mr. Myrthe never liked the doctor and was allays a findin' fault wi' his treatment o' his wife. And there was black looks and words given, and this night when the doctor was sittin' up in his study, Mr. Myrthe wouldn't go to bed but was prowlin' like round th' house and openin' doors and things as he'd no call to meddle wi'. And the nurse heerd noises and she came down and seed him a standin' bent like over the dead man, and he had some queer sort o' story 'bout bein' in the garden and hearin' voices, and that a queer figure lepped thro' the study window and threw him backwards and when he got up 'twas nowhere to be seen. That he got in through the window and found the doctor a-lyin' on the couch, strangulated. The nurse she couldn't believe it, and she sent him for old Dr. Transom in the High Street, and he com'd all of a hurry. And 'twas true. The doctor lay a dead corpse on th' couch, and finger marks were printed on his throat. There was no robbery, nothin' in the room touched, and the nurse and the doctor they giv' evidence o' that, so Jane Crickett says. 'Twas altogether mazin' strange and suspicious. All seemed tellin' like against the poor young man. Anyways he's tuk up on suspicion, so Jane Crickett says."
Molly had listened in stoney silence. Now that the recital was finished she gave a short contemptuous laugh.
"M'appen ye're all a set o' fules! Mr. Myrthe 'ud no more do murder than a babe at the breast 'ud do it! Ye've gotten t'wrong end o' th' story, Jess, for sure. Mr. Myrthe must ha' given testimony as someone else ha' done the deed. No one in their senses cud look at him and think him such a masterful piece of villainy as 'ud tak human life!"
She laughed scornfully. Jess again implored silence. Then Martha Dilley spoke up. "I don't b'lieve it—for one," she affirmed. "There's bin some mistake. They've gotten the wrong man same as has happened scores o' times before now. I've heerd it often eno'. You cheer up, Molly. They can't hurt him."
"I don't need you nor any other to tell me that, gells! He's—he's so brave, and strong, and good! 'Tis sin and shame to think as he cud harm a living soul!"
"So 'tis," said Jess. '"And I told Jane Crickett that I didn't believe a word o' it. But she said b'lieve or not, there war a warrint out for him arter th' inquest; and folks think he was tuk away and lodged in th' prison till the magistrates inquire into it."
"Tuk away! D'ye mean to say as they cud do that to an innocent man?" exclaimed Molly indignantly.
"The law is a terrible powerful thing. 'Tis no use a tryin' to understand or get away from it, so I've heerd."
"Tell me that other bit again, Jess, and slower like—till I get it into my head. The bit about the other man that sprang out o' th' room. He mun be the true murderer, ye tak my word for it."
"So Mr. Myrthe said, but no one 'ud b'lieve him. They do say as the nurse up at th' Hall was most awful hard on him. 'Twas her evidence as made the jury tak up th' case agin Mr. Myrthe."
Molly leant her head on her hands and rocked herself to and fro, while Jess went back over the old ground and repeated the mode of discovery and its attendant details.
"They do say as all the murders is from one or other o' two causes. Robbery, or jealous hate. Now, 'twasn't robbery at the Hall. So they tuk up t'other point o' th' law."
"But why should Mr. Myrthe hate the doctor?"
"'Tisn't rightly' known, only guessed at. Jane Crickett do say that he was uncommon tuk up wi' Mrs. Quarn, and he an' the doctor had words o't."
Molly's heart seemed to grow suddenly cold and heavy as stone. She lifted her head, and sat rigid, looking straight at the window. The light of the full moon streamed through it into the room, and across the floor, almost to her feet.
"Wonderful took up wi' Mrs. Quarn."
Why should these words hurt her so? She could not understand "Wonderful took up."
"You look dazed like, Molly, or maybe it's th' moonlight. How it do shine in to be sure. Be ye cold? your hands are like stone. I'd get back to bed if I were you. Th' mornin' will be here soon eno', and ye'll be sure to hear th' truth. Jane said as Miss Moneyash was comin' over for th' day. If so, we'll ha' th' rights o't."
Molly rose mechanically and groped her way across to her own bed, and lay down. It seemed to her that all power of feeling had left her. She was numb to her heart's core.
What dreadful thing was this that had happened, freezing the blood of hope and joy in her veins in their first springtime? What had suddenly made the sun, the moon, the stars, the round world, and all that was living in their midst, bound as if by a chain of iron to a wheel of torture—What? What? therein of no account—yet set her suffer—What?
Presently the cords about her brain began to loosen. A chance thought crept here and there through the frozen crannies. A little warmth came to her still heart. She stared wide-eyed at that silver lino across the floor, a pathway leading heavenward. A little thing enough. A mere streak of moonlight, but somehow it held a message for her. It spoke of other things. Of a world beyond, a world above this passive misery, of life and its manifold meanings. Of something, some way in which she might help or serve one who had so well served her. Very still she lay, watching that silver streak. She was too ignorant to speculate upon the various chances of the tragedy that filled her mind. She could only think that Rufus was innocent, yet endangered. That there would be no walk on the morrow. Perhaps not for many, many good morrows to come. Yet the sadness of that thought was less overpowering than the cruel pain that had struck heavy-handed on one cherished hope, crushing it to the ground as a stone crushes a flower. It was no fault of his. She laid no shadow of blame on any word, or action, that memory had made so dangerously dear. Only—only—it would be memory hence-forwards.
For a brief while the sun had shone, the flowers had bloomed, her feet had trod the primrose path. Now all was darkness, shadow, loneliness.
All the long night she lay there, thinking the same thoughts to very weariness, yet unable to banish them into any region of sleep, or dreams.
She saw the cold, grey down replace the night's long hours. Its prosaic light deepened and grew rosy, yet her eyes still remained fixed on white blind and window pane. It was Sunday morning. A Sunday morning without meaning. A forecast of days and weeks to come—all one dull, even level.
She sat up and looked across at her companions. How soundly they slept. How rosy and common-place they looked.
Then, like a sharp stab, there cut across her seeming indifference the question she had been evading all to no purpose.
Sunday was here. Her day; their day. Oh! where was he? What had set her brain jangling? Whence had come this terrifying whisper for ever at her ear?
An accused criminal. . . In gaol. . . . . So some cruel tongue had whispered.
The routine of the day went on as ever, despite the tragedy that filled the air and filled one human heart amongst that crowd of careless girl-life.
The hours of church service were full of agony to Molly. And when the Vicar made brief and touching allusion to the awful crime that had been committed in their peaceful town; and spoke of the good deeds and useful life of the victim, there was scarcely a dry eye among the whole congregation.
Miss Moneyash was not present, but she was at the Home when the girls returned for early dinner. She spoke to them kindly, and interestedly as ever. They thought she looked worn and ill, and the sweet placidity of her face had changed to a sad perplexity. Indeed the little old lady was well nigh distraught. One shock after another, one tragedy treading swift upon its predecessor!—It was enough to overthrow the balance of a much stronger mind than her own. Only her love for Patience, and her implicit faith in Rufus Myrthe had kept her from breaking down. He had implored her to be brave and strong, and keep up her courage for all their sakes. This would come out all right. He had no fear. It was all a mistake of addled brains and country prejudices. This and other cheering words made up their last interview. He did not see Patience at all. She had only been told that her husband had died suddenly, from an overdose of laudanum, it was feared. After the first shock of horror and surprise she had been strangely calm. She asked no questions. Felix and herself had parted irrevocably before ever life had ended for him. Death, as an Angel of Mercy, brooded over the first sense of peace she had known for many years. She could not play the hypocrite now. Could not weep and moan. All that had been done. The man she had loved so devotedly had himself struck a murderous blow at that love, and in killing it had also given himself a grave.
Very quiet, very still, she lay back against her pillows in that darkened room. Its shadowy spaces had held so many shameful memories, that one more was scarcely to be noted among them. The silence in her soul was unassailable by external forces. Hence forward, against Love's closed doors was written only "Peace." She asked no more—desired no more. The future was no longer terrible. She could think of it painlessly, as one under an anaesthetic is robbed of consciousness of present suffering.
She lay alone in quiet hours of passing day and dreamless night; isolated from the dark tragedy below; gazing at the restored gift of life wrung from that tragedy. Even thought was lulled. She had passed through suffering, and oh! relief was sweet. The horrors of the operating table, the instruments, the interlude of drugged senses, of awful, helpless passivity, were all over. The stage was clear once more. It held no shadows. They had rolled away with the up-rolling of the curtain.
"I am free," she told herself, and then slept and woke—and remembered. And again murmured: "Be still. I am free!"
* * * * * *
"I must leave you for a few hours," Miss Lavinia had whispered that Sunday morning. Patience only looked at her with eyes grown larger and softer since Hope had dawned.
"I am quite safe, quite content," she had answered.
Miss Lavinia had hurried away. She had told herself that Patience was not quite strong yet, had not fully taken in the meaning of this awful thing that had happened. But she was wrong. Patience could have told her why she was so unmoved, so—apparently unnatural. Love can only die—once.
* * * * * *
The early dinner of the Home had passed off in an atmosphere of repressed excitement. The girls noted how pale Molly was, how poor her appetite. As soon as the meal was over Miss Lavinia summoned the girl to her own private room. She had a message to give to her from Rufus Myrthe.
"Sit down, Molly," she said, glancing kindly at the white young face. "I am very sorry that it is necessary to tell you a very painful and horrible story. But I find I must do it. Of course, you have heard of what has happened at the hall?"
"Yes, ma'am. You mean the death o' Dr. Quarn?"
"Yes. Is that all you know? Have you heard it was not a natural—death, that his life was taken by violence?"
"I heerd o' that!"
"Ah, rumour flies apace. I'm sorry even our quiet home here cannot shut its door to horrors. Well, Molly, I have sent for you for a special purpose. First—I must tell you the story of the murder as I had it from the lips of Mr. Myrthe. Next, I am to give you his message."
The girl's lips trembled. "He thought o' me. In spite o' trouble an' shame an' all that's come to him, he thought o' me," she was telling herself.
She made no audible comment and Miss Lavinia, in quiet, unsensational words, gave her the history of that night of the crime.
"Of course," she concluded, "anyone who knows Rufus Myrthe must feel that it is all a hideous mistake. That he is the victim of circumstantial evidence only. A thing always, more or less, to be distrusted. But the law is a terrible thing, Molly. Rufus himself told me that he could hardly understand how the case had been made to look so black against him. Dr. Transom and the nurse at the Hall, Mrs. Tadgate, gave very startling evidence. On the strength of it he has been arrested. At first I could not believe it. And the result is he is in prison. I'm sure it won't be for long. But there's another court, another inquiry, to face, and meantime the poor fellow is subjected to all this humiliation. But enough of that. What I have to say is this, Molly. He asked me to tell you the story, and to say that the figure he saw escaping through the window was the figure of a small, mis-shapen man. A dwarf, in fact. He wishes to know if you can remember anything about this creature, so as to identify it. If you are aware of its habits, or the place it frequents. If so, I am to give you leave to pursue any inquiries, or lay any information that might lead to its capture before the proper authorities. He told me, in fact, that you are the only one who can help him in the matter. Is that so, Molly?"
The girl lifted her face. A warm, lovely colour swept it like a flash of dawn on a wintry sky. Her eyes glowed with passionate joy. She—she of all whom he knew, and who loved him, and called him friend, she was elected to do this service.
She rose hurriedly. Then, as suddenly sank back into her seat. She wrung her hands.
"Oh!" she cried, "I could, and yet I can't. I know what he means. 'Twas what I made out o' mother's writing. The dwarf as she spoke o'—Japes. But I canna make out th' story. I've tried, but th' writin's all torn, and twisted, and seems to ha' no sense. 'Twould take time and more cleverness nor I'd ever ha' gotten to make out sense or meanin'. An' he said I was to show the story to no one elese. 'Twas my mother's secret, an' meant for no one save I to know."
Miss Lavinia's delicate, sweet face grew very troubled.
"There is such a being—one scarcely knows how to describe it—as this dwarf then? You know of it, Molly?"
"Long ago, whin I was a little child. I seems to mind a kind of terror o' some such thing," she answered. "Mother 'ud go out an' I'd be wi' her. An' she'd take a basket o' vittals, an' he'd cum limpin' o'er moorside to fetch it. But 'tis years agone. I've seen naught o' him for long and long eno'."
"But the fact of there being such a creature in existence proves Rufus Myrthe's story. What went against him was its improbability. If any human creature at all answering his description lives in the neighbourhood it must have attracted notice if only for its strangeness. You, Molly, say you know of such a creature?"
"I think it must be Japes," she said.
"But why should he do such an awful thing!" exclaimed Miss Lavinia suddenly. "How could he know of Dr. Quarn, or have planned his murder? The thing only gets more mysterious. You say you haven't seen the dwarf for years?"
"No—only heerd o't. Old Luk Froggart, as was our sheep minder, and farm help up to home, he told me as how an ill-looking critter haunted th' moorside, an' was accounted ill-lucky, to folk."
"That sounds like the actor in this tragedy. Rufus Myrthe told me he saw it only once. That was when he was at the Inn, your old home, Molly. Come, this looks more hopeful. Would it be possible to capture this dwarf? If so, Rufus Myrthe's story is proved."
"I dunno," Molly said slowly. "He has no bidin' place they say, leastwise none that any mortal foot can tread or find th' way o'. Old Luk he sayed 'twas in th' haunted mine, that Japes bode. But,"—she paused, and then went on excitedly. "There's Old Dame Dottery th' herb woman. She might knaw. There's nothin' she don't know. She's wonderful wise. If so be as I cud go to her."
The old lady rose in profound agitation. "Molly, child, you and I are only two helpless women, and the law, the hateful, one-eyed, cruel law, has him in its grip. We'll get him out of it between us if it's to be done. But we must be very careful. We must lay our plans and carry them out so that no one will guess what we're doing till we cry victory! If you or I went and laid information of this dwarf's existence, and repute before those stupid local police, ten to one they wouldn't believe, or would pursue, inquiries in such a manner that this—Japes, is it? would escape. He must be cunning, and it will be no easy task I'm afraid. To track him out he should not be able to suspect that anyone is looking for him. That you, and you only, could do, Molly. Then, if the case goes against Rufus, if he is committed for trial, I shall get some clever detective down from London, and give him all the information necessary, and engage a lawyer to defend my poor boy. It mayn't sound very clever," she added, half to herself, "or be the legal way of acting, or the way a man would act, but I can't help thinking it is the best way, Molly, for the present."
The girl had drunk in every word with eager attention. "It seems wonderful clever and easy-like," she said. "Only, if we can't find Japes, what's to do then?"
"We must, we must!" cried the little lady feverishly. "You must leave here to-morrow, Molly, and get back to your old home and see these people, and make the inquiries. You must not, of course, say why you make them, or let this creature get wind of it. He might suspect a stranger. He wouldn't suspect you. I'll give you money. It may be necessary to bribe, to pay. Oh, Molly! Molly! let us hope we have hit upon something to clear his dear name, to get him out of this awful predicament!"
The girl lifted her face. It was white and solemn; her lips moved as if registering a vow. "There's naught in heaven, or earth, or hell-fire's self, as I wouldn't face for sake o' Rufus Myrthe!" she said slowly.
Miss Lavinia looked a little scared. To what new destiny was she engaging herself to play Providence?
The cold was bitter up on the Peak heights. In no place more bitter than in that barren region where the grey-stoned Inn swung its ill-omened sign to the fierce winds that seemed to blow from every quarter. The sky was steely grey above, and heavy banks of cloud, ominous of snow, lay piled on the horizon line. Nothing more dreary or less inviting could be imagined. Molly Udale toiled wearily along the well-known footpath, and saw once again the familiar places to which she had said farewell so gladly scarce two months before. In the diminishing daylight the place seemed smaller, darker, more desolate than it had lived in her remembrance. Perhaps it was the change from the fertile valley that give these swarthy and abrupt slopes so menacing an aspect. She bent her head to the fury of the blast, and climbed yet another point of steepness. A round red disc of light shone from the Inn window. It brought a sense of home and nearness, though she expected no welcome.
"He'll be at home," she said to herself, stopping for a moment to regain breath, and fasten the strap of her bundle more securely. She had slung it across her shoulders to have her arms free. Miss Lavinia had sent her to Endcliff Dale in a spring cart, but there Molly had dismissed the driver and walked the remaining seven miles.
The first sense of freedom after discipline was not unpleasant. Her brisk young limbs stretched like a greyhound's over the first mile. She felt as if she could walk for ever. Life had a purpose in it now that made existence dear. As she skimmed over the ground she called to mind all Miss Lavinia's instructions as to caution. She planned what she must say to her father, to old Luke, to Dame Dottery. Her own purpose was to spend as brief a time as possible here. She could not communicate with her protectress in the interim. She could tell nothing, and hear nothing. Her own energies would be her only support, and her own wits her only counsellors.
She reached the Inn at last, and went to the back of the premises as she had used to do. There seemed more light about than in her days, and when she opened the kitchen door she found it aglow with blazing fire and lamplight. Seated either side the wide old chimney-place were her father and a big, coarse, frowsy-looking woman, whose face and figure brought some swift, unpleasant memory to the girl's mind.
They turned and stared at her, as she stood in the doorway, shading her eyes from the vivid light, her hair tumbled and loose under the scarlet kerchief she had tied over her bonnet to keep it firm against the wind.
"Why, 'tis Moll, sure as I live!" exclaimed the woman.
"Moll! What the devil brings 'ee here?" said her father, turning his ill-natured glance upon her glowing beauty. "I thought as how I'd sayed good-bye to 'ee for good an' all. Ha' yer new friends got sick o' 'ee alreddy."
"I've come home for a little time; for the Christmas holidays," said Molly timidly.
She was looking at the full blown Blowsabella by the fire, seated in her mother's place on the settle. What was she doing here?
Her father greeted her announcement with a hoarse laugh. "Thee's room 'ud ha' bin more welcome than tha company," he said frankly. "But since thee art here, thee mun stay I tak' it. Come along in. Thee look'st as skeart as if 'twas a stranger speakin'. Ye mind Lil o' th' Moorside. She's my wife, leastways we agrees to call her so. We are na' too partik'lar, she an' I. Shake hans an' be friends, an' gie us the news o' the town yonder. There's ne'er a soul bin nigh for a crack or a drop this week an' more."
Molly advanced slowly, and took the woman's rough extended hand. She never remembered saluting her father in her life, and did not attempt to do so now. That he should have put someone here in place of her mother scarcely surprised her. She accepted the fact with the philosophy of "what's done, why 'tis done," and made no comment.
"Can I have my room?" she asked presently.
The woman jumped up with alacrity. Any new company was preferable to the dull monotony of Dick Udale, his surly ill-humour, or his scarce more genial sottishness.
She lit a candle, and took Molly upstairs, and opened the door of her little bare chamber, the one she had relegated to Rufus Myrthe, though he had been unaware of the fact.
"'Tis all of a mess, but ye can set it t' right yersel," observed the new step-mother hospitably. "We'd ne'er a thocht o' yer cummin' home like this. My! but ye're fine set up wi' yer stuff gown and yer straw bonnet. Be they given to ye at tha' Home where ye wrote of?"
For Molly had dutifully indited one letter to her father, telling him of her new home, its duties, and its comforts.
"Yes, Lil," she said. "We gells be all dressed the same there."
"'Tis plain eno'. I'd ha' had a ribbon or a flower i' that bonnet. Well, I'm main glad to see 'ee, Moll. This place is eno' to kill me wi' dullness. An' yer feyther ain't none too pleasant company, drunk or sober. I wonder at ye comin' home at all. Ye wern't none too fond o' each other, I've heerd."
"I told ye 'twas holiday times," answered Molly, taking off her cloak and hanging it behind the door. "The gells as has no homes stop, an' them as has, goes. That's all. An' now, Lil, I'll have to clean and sweep this place up. I canno abide dirt. An' ye'll ha' to gie me a sheet. There's nought o' t' sort here."
"Na. I knaws that. Ye've grown mighty partik'lar sin ye've been away. M'appen ye'll want roasted chickens an' vegetables for yer supper same as the gentry, ha'. Just gie yer orders. Ye're sure to ha' them carried out!"
She laughed scornfully, but Molly's serene indifference was impervious to sarcasm.
"Come, Lil, git along wi' ye," she said. "An' as for supper—why, I'll cook it same as I used to do. Ye needn't work for me, or yersels, an' ye dunna like. As far as my mem'ry goes 'twere always 'dunna like.'"
"That's true eno'," said the woman. "Save for t' bar, an' th' chance o' a man or two droppin' in to wet his throstle, or th' pedlar chap as cums twice i' th' year, there's naught ta hear or see i' th' place, an' so I does my chores to help pass time away. But I never tuk ta wark same as some du."
After that night Molly Udale found that she might work as much as she pleased, and welcome. To get the meals, to clean the house, seemed entirely relegated to her as duties. Her step-mother would loll by the fire reading "pennies," as she called a store of trashy literature, sentimental as to illustration, and immoral as to contents, which the pedlars hawked to the farms and cottages with their more substantial wares. The first two days the girl was kept indoors, sorely against her will, by a terrific snowstorm. She chafed inwardly at her detention, but dared give no sign of what it meant. She was not sorry therefore to clean and cook and tidy up the house, though she got no thanks for her trouble, and had generally her evenings enlivened by the drunken disputes between her father and his new helpmate. For Lil o' Moorside was a good "second" at the glass, and the Inn was a degree worse in manners and morals than when Molly had left it.
The girl got a word now and then with old Luke, but he could give her no information respecting what she desired, the whereabouts of the dwarf, or how he lived, and occupied himself.
The third day, however, was clear and fine, though the cold was intense. The frozen snow made walking possible, and as soon as Molly had cleared the breakfast and tidied the kitchen she put on her bonnet and cloak and set out for the cottage of the old herb woman.
* * * * * *
Dame Dottery was at home.
The girl found her crouched over her peat fire, huddled up in ragged shawls till she looked like an indiscriminate rag bundle. Her eyes red and bleared with smoke glanced curiously at the figure of her visitor.
"Why, for sure!" she ejaculated. "It b'ain't never you, Molly Udale? I heerd as you'd left us for good an' all. Weel, weel, what brings ye this way?"
"I thought I'd come an' see how ye were, Dame. It's main an' lonesome here winter times."
"Ay, 'tis so. An' ye ha' na forgott'n t'old woman, Moll. Where's yer gran' friends? Ha' ye tired o' em? Lord! To think ye'd be skerlin' agen th' mo'orside, an' arter leavin' us for iver, sae 'twere said by yer ain feyther. There, lass, sit ye doon. I'll be glad eno to ha' a crack wi' ye."
Molly took a ricketty three-legged stool and drew it up beside the old crone. She was uncertain how to begin her questions, having a previous memory of the Dame's "closeness," when she thought her secrets were demanded, and her contrasting power of expansion when she was in a mood to gossip.
"Ye went off mighty suddin-like," continued the old dame, throwing a bundle of furze on the top of the peat to make a blaze. "Ne'er a good-bye to one as was nurse an' help to ye' whin ye were but a bairn just bared, an' a friend to yer puir mither as none knawed better nor she."
"I went away in great haste," said Molly, pacifically. "That young man, as war stayin' at the Inn, he got feyther's consint to put me to a school-place down Peak Edge way. An' there I've bin ivir since, larnin' ta read an' write, an' cook an' sew, wi' a kind lady as has founded a place called a 'Home.' 'Tis that, Dame, I tell 'ee. The first home I've ivir known."
"Ye's got a grander way o' speakin', Moll, an' now I cum to look at ye, there'e a difference atween what ye was and yersel' now, I canna say exactly what. Ye're tidier-lookin', ay, an', bonnier, too. Tell me, lass, ha' ye gotten a sweetheart o' yer own? Any man might well be soft on ye, wi' yer gowd hair, and yer lissom figure."
"No, Dame. I nivir give thought to sich fulishness. I'm set on learnin' all I can. 'Tis sad eno', the waste o' years behind me. There's many a child o' ten as cud beat me i' th' way o' readin' an' writin'."
"What need ye care for that? A bonnie face is worth all th' books in th' warld to a man's thinkin'."
Molly shook her "gowd" head. "I don't care 'bout men an' their thoughts, Dame. I want to mak' a better thing o' life than gie in' mysel' to matrimony. I ha' my ain poor mother i' my mind. 'Tisn't allays happiness to call a man yer husband, Dame."
"That's true eno', Moll, tho' 'tain't a sayin' as is often on a young maid's lips. An' speakin' o' yer mither minds me she were a puir feckless thing whin she were young, but bonnier than yersel', Moll. Ay, settin' men folks by th' ears weriver she were, that's what she did! . . . I mind me o' a terrible scrape I helped her thro'. 'Twere life an' death almost, an——"
She stopped abruptly, and gave the girl a quick, suspicious glance. Was she being led on to confidences, or simply unburdening her overflowing soul?
Molly's quiet face gave no sign of too vivid interest. She simply moved a little away, and produced from a basket she had placed on the brick floor a large flat bottle.
"Here's summat I've brought thee, Dame," she said. "'Twill keep th' cold out this bitter weather. I mind how ye used to like yer hot glass whin ye've bin stayin' at th' Inn. Shall I bile th' kettle, an' make ye some now?"
The old woman's eyes glistened. "Ay—ay. Do 'ee then. Do 'ee. A kind lass. An old woman's blessin' on ye, child, for th' thocht o' her these terr'ble hard times. Sure me old bones ache wi' rheumatiz as I canna lie nor sit wi' ony comfort."
She watched the preparations with greedy eyes. Loaf sugar, spice, rum—why what treasures were these, and how long they had been strangers in this wretched hovel.
"The Inn is well stockit now," observed Molly, watching the kettle's advance to boiling point. "Lill o' Moorside, she's th' mistress, an' takes mighty care there be vittals an' drink goin' all th' time."
"They quarrels terr'ble, I dew hear say," said the Dame. "An' they hain't man an' wife afore th' parson, an' only makes a scorn o't. I didna think, Moll lass, as ye'd ivir be back there to see such a gay trapezin mawther i' thy puir mother's place."
"Nor I," said Molly, "but I came——"
She stopped short. The time was not yet ripe to say why she had come. She rose and went to the cupboard in search of a glass and spoon among all the odds and ends of Dame Dottery's collection. She came back with a large thick tumbler of a strength to defy all accidents short of an earthquake, and set it down.
"The kettle's just on the boil," she said. "Well, as I was saying, Dame, my comin' was unexpected. 'Tis nigh on Chris'mas time, ye know. An' th' schules finish an' ha' holidays. Them as kin go to their own homes they go. An' th' lady seemed to think as how I'd best be here for a spell."
The old woman nodded complacently. Since "bein' here" meant such a welcome store of comfort for herself she was not inclined to criticise the fact.
She watched the girl's deft fingers prepare her hot drink with gluttonous joy. And then taking the steaming fragrance into her own charge felt that the world and she were once more at peace with one another.
Molly watched her prolonged sips in breathless silence. Would this potent potion unlock the old crone's lips? Might she adventure a question on the all-engrossing subject, that had brought her here.
When the tumbler was half-finished the old woman again made reference to her many storied memories.
"I wer talkin' o' thy mither, Moll, lass, an' sayin' as how I'd helped her out o' a bit 'o' trouble once. Ay, 'twas a pitiful sad thing, but theer, we're nane o' us sae wise whin we're young."
She nodded her palsied old head, and took a deep draught of the steaming liquid.
"It be mighty comfortin'. I are na' hungered these times so much as I'm dry. A good lass ta think o' an ole woman. Ay, a good lass!"
"Ye've lived these parts allays, Dame, ha'nt ye?" asked Molly, as a first venture.
"Nigh o' four-score year. Ay, lass, there bain't much o' weddin', or burryin', an' chilebearin', as I na' ha' a footin' o't. Times war whin I'd tramp th' country round fo' miles an' miles. Th' whole Peak-side war knawn to me, from the Axe Edge ta th' Winnans. I mind me o' th' big mines, an' th' quarries, an' a' th' fearsome things as ha' happened theer-bouts. An' th' names o' all they queer gritstone Tors, as wise folks cum a hammerin' an' a speerin' round. Ay—ay, I knawed them a'. I knaw'd a murder or two an' cud ha' gien law-notice o' thim, an' ha' th' gift money. But I wadna do't. I war terr'ble soft-hearted when I war young, Moll."
"An' about here, Dame?" said Molly, taking advantage of the quaffed goblet. "Ha' ye ony tales an' stories about these parts too?"
"Stories?" The old woman set down the tumbler on her shaking knees once more, cherishing it between two grimed and wrinkled hands. "Pack o' 'em, lass," she chuckled. "Stories as 'ud chill th' blood, ay—an' warm it too. Stories as 'ud mak ivery hair o' th' head stan' upright wi' fear."
Molly's face flushed eagerly. Was the garrulous old creature coming near the point at last.
"I knaw o' a murder as no livin' soul save I, an' he who done it knaws," she went on. "I knaw wheer th' bones o' thy feyther's brother dew lie, Moll Udale, and I cud tell how they cum theer. An' I knaw th' trew story of the qeer lil' man as tramps the moorside, and is th' onluckiest gowk ta meet for chilecarrying' wimmin, or little chillern. Thee canna mind 'un, Moll, but 'ee were't terrible skeert o' un' whin ye was littler."
Molly trembled with suppressed agitation. But she dared betray no curiosity, put no question. The old woman again raised the "comforter" to her lips, and the geniality of its effects showed itself in a further unloosening of tongue and secrets.
"I an' thy mither," babbled the crone. "'Twas we only as cud tell the rights o' that. A pitiable sad tale o' wrong, an' man's wickedness."
Her head began to nod. The strength of the potion was having effect.
"Cud ye not tell it me?" said Molly insidiously. "If 'tis a secret I kin keep one well. I ha' one or two o' my own, dame, that ne'er a soul dreams o'."
"Ay! Ha' ye now? An' ye so young. But what's one or twa, cum ta hundreds. Ask yersel that, my lass. Hundreds!—As I was sayin'. But this here drops nigh finished, Moll, dearie. Ha' ye got na more?"
"Presently, Dame, presently. Ye must tell me a bit o' a story as payment out o' thim hundreds ye knaws. Just one, Dame, th' one 'bout th' little man o' th' moorside. Sounds summat like a fairy tale."
"Fairy tale!" The old crone straightened herself in her bundle of rags, and looked straight at the girl. "Divil's tale be more like't. I dun knaw if it be right sort o' story for a young maid ta heer. Well—did 'ee say ther war a drop more o' th' stuff handy, Moll?"
"Yes, yes; I'll give it ye as soon as ye tell me th' story o' Japes."
"How do 'ee knaw th' name o' th' lil' man?" asked the old creature sharply.
"I've heard it from mother."
"Oh, ay. M'appen she spoke afore th' blow that maimed her speech. 'Tis trew eno'; thee'st gotten it. Japes 'tis."
"He lives—hereabouts?" adventured the girl, softly.
"He has ne'er tould a livin' soul wheer he lives, nor how he gets th' food that keeps life in him. Yet I knaw. He canna hide sae close that ole Nan Dottery canna find his burrow. But tho' ither folks spint years searchin' for't they'd ne'er come anigh it."
"Why do he hide?" insinuated Molly cautiously.
"He tain't like no livin' creetur as walks ta earth. He war born accursed, child, that's trew eno'. Cursed afore life was rightly his'n. Cursed afore he'd drawn breath and suck. Cursed as I knawd whin I hid him fra' sight o' day an' mortal eyes. He was like no mortal chile. He'd stay wi' bird or beast sooner nor wi' humans. He'd live i' th' forest or where th' teal an' wildfowl hide, an' tame th' birds an talk to 'em i' th' strangest way. An' sure all livin' critters from the heron i' the sedges to the field mouse an' th' rabbits were friendly ta him. Spiteful he war at times an' cruel, but he'd nivir harm th' things o' wood an' water. Yet he got a bad name, an' all th' folk shunned him. Most on 'em thinks he's an evil spirit. Devil-spawn they dew call him."
She shook her head warily.
"But old Nan Dottery knaws better nor that. Ill-begotten 'tis trew, an' cursed afore birth by reason of terror an' shame an' th' horrors o' strange hap'nins. That's his story. An' now, Moll, lass, do 'ee brew anither drop o' th' comfortin' stuff for a puir old soul an' m'appen she'll tell 'ee some more."
"Will ye tell me who was his mother?" asked the girl, breathlessly.
The old woman glanced up at the anxious face above her, and shook her own head two or three times.
"Dinna ask that, Moll. Dinna. 'Twar better 'ee shouldn't knaw."
It was dusk before Molly returned to the Inn.
Her step-mother, huddled as usual before the fire, gave her an angry greeting. "Where ha' ye bin all th' day? Leavin' me to get th' dinner, an' thy feyther like a sot gone fathoms deep i' drink, an' bundled up ta bed. Why, what's come ta 'ee, Moll? Thee'rt white an' whist as if 'eed seen a ghoast."
"I'm tired," answered the girl. Her voice was mechanical, the spring and nerve seemed all gone out of the face and figure. She dropped into a chair by the fire and sighed heavily.
"Tired. Well, why do 'ee go wanderin' all th' country over sich weather as this? 'Twarn't as if ye'd folks ta visit either. Th' whole place is dismal as a churchyard. I bain't goin' to stand th' life much longer, an' so I told thy feyther."
Molly paid no heed to the querulous voice. Everything here seemed so petty, so insignificant now. She had emerged from an hideous phantasy, something outside reality it seemed to her, and even her own personality wore a changed aspect.
The fire was only a dull red blur amidst the gathering darkness. She noted it with wide unseeing eyes. She heard Lil's querulous babble, as though it were apart from the woman herself. The monotonous "burr" of a stream, whose course was no concern of hers. "Why was she here at all?" she asked herself. How had she passed the long hours of that day. Surely eternity could be no longer than the space that stretched between a girl's curiosity and its gratification. Between Moll Udale who had teazed out the secret of the half-tipsy crone with four-score years of life behind her and Moll Udale creeping homewards over the barren moorside, gathering the darkness and silence of the outer world to her stricken heart; questioning some ironical god as to the why and wherefore of all the manifold perplexities that lay before her stumbling feet.
"It was to be. I had to know—someday." Over and over again she found herself saying these words. And whether that "someday" met her prepared or ignorant, in no way altered the vital force of the blow it dealt. Underneath the azure of the sky lie blacker clouds, in waiting. Over fair green valleys mist and rain may sweep without warning. Where sweet birds sing the cruel kite may hover, and over life's young ignorance change as cruel and as unforeseen may swoop with portents tragic as are these signs of nature.
So small a thing had altered everything: and that thing meant all that life and the future meant henceforward.
Dazed and dumb, and stupid, she sat on paying no heed to her companion's gabble, wondering passively when she would find strength to gather together these aching limbs and muscles, and that dead weight of apathy that meant herself, and carry them to bed, and the welcome silence of the night.
She wanted to think. She wanted to form some plan, but her dazed brain refused all help. She was conscious of having dragged herself to and fro over rough earth and harsh gorse; amidst all the moorland loneliness that had meant past memories. Sheer instinct had brought her home. The day had gone at last. Its departure seemed to her the expression of an unexpressed secret that lay close to her aching heart. The sign manual of that inevitable law which she had to face; old as life and cruel as doom.
"On the heads of the innocent shall fall the sins of the guilty, until the penalty be paid even to the uttermost farthing!"
She rose at last, and with some muttered words she stumbled up the narrow stairs that led to her own room. It seemed to her that a shadowy figure stalked beside her. That the two things always associated with her mother—whiteness and silence—were here once more, hovering in the darkened spaces, standing before the closed doors.
Shivering and aghast she lit her candle, and then threw herself down upon the narrow bed. All sensation of life was a sensation of misery. All hopes of to-morrow blotted out by despair of to-day.
Whether sleep or unconsciousness took her and her sorrows into their soft care she scarcely knew. Passively she lay and drifted into some vague unknown, where all was dark and still, and even dreams could not intrude.
* * * * * *
Cold, and grey, and chill the day broke. On the distant heights the light glanced, and then withdrew, and then looked forth again as if uncertain whether to bestow further favours.
Chilled and half-frozen, Molly Udale stirred, and then sat up and looked about her, questioning the reason of being still dressed and too dazed to answer it. She rubbed her hands, and stamped her numbed feet upon the floor. With movement came a quick return of memory, of conscious and far-reaching trouble.
She pushed back her heavy fallen hair, and turning to the window looked out at the greyness that meant day. No warm glint of sun came as yet to stir the frozen mists. With a feeling that action was preferable to remaining in her drear bed-chamber, she made her simple toilet and went downstairs to the kitchen.
She raked the blocks of turf together and blew them into flame, and piled on furze and brushwood. Then she cleaned the kitchen, and set the breakfast.
Lil never came down till the sun was up, and sometimes later than that, now Molly was here and the work done.
The girl made herself some tea, and then went out into the yard. The old sheep dog came to her, and thrust his nose into her warm palm, and wagged a tail of joyful greeting. But her response was purely mechanical for once. She went into Luke Froggart's shed, and found the old man making his stir-about himself, in an atmosphere of smoke and mist.
With the swiftness and deftness of long custom Moll mended his fire, and helped prepare his breakfast. She had something to ask him, but deemed it best to wait until he was warmed and fed, and less unamiable of speech than he had shown himself hitherto.
"I wonder thou'rt not grown too fine an' gran' to help th' likes o' us," observed the old man. "Fra' all I heerd I thocht ye war'na comin' back ter these parts ony more. I wish th' young fellow ha' cum back wi' 'ee. He war that kind, an' helpfu'. My! he war a traveller, too, by the talk o' him. Where be he now, lass, do 'ee know?"
"Yes," said the girl quickly. "I know."
"Well, thees't mighty close about it. He winna be this way again, I tak it."
She shook her head, and he noticed how pale she looked.
Suddenly she took her courage into desperate hands, and asked him the question she had come to ask.
He stared at her, lifting grizzled eyebrows to the wrinkled furrows above their arch. "What for de 'ee want to knaw that?"
"Never mind why. I do want to know. I thocht maybe ye might ha' some knowledge o't."
"Ne'er a livin' soul ha' that," said old Luke emphatically. "An' nane 'ud be wantin' to. 'Tis bad luck eno' to see th' lil' toad wi'out tryin' to find his hidin' place."
"Is he so—so very terrible?" faltered the girl.
"He be that, lass. I dunno wish ta see him mysel', ivir again."
"Is it long sin' ye did see him, Luke?"
The ancient man pondered. "A goodish bit," he said. "But thin I don't favour ta mine nor ta moorside arter sunset."
"You think 'tis somewhere near the mine he's always seen?"
"I knaw 'tis. A gashly lonsome spot. How he do live, or get food or drink, no mortal hereabouts du knaw."
Molly was silent. Her intent gaze was on the fire by which she stood. Quiet though she looked, her heart was beating quickly, and fear beyond expression held her in thrall. "I must do it," she was telling herself. "Whatever comes of it I must see him and soon."
Beyond the open door of the shed Moll saw the sunlight gleaming. A warm hue of daylight kindled in the sky and ever the intervening uplands and heights stretching to far spaced distances. She saw it even here, and knew that some hours of fine weather were to be safely counted on.
Her eyes turned to the gnarled visage of the old labourer. He would have been company, even if no possible protection, but she durst not ask him to go with her on her quest.
"Well, I mun be about my wark," he said, "I dunno how 'tis thy feyther bain't harryin' an' swearin' at me an hour agone. Get thee in, lass, an' ha' thy own vittals. I hear that food an' drink be main an' plentifu' wi' th' new missus's rule. It ha' na made ony difference to me—yet."
He shuffled away and Molly followed.
The delay of breakfast was something. She clutched at its straw of detention with a sense of relief. Scolding voices, quarrels, what mattered they? For aught she knew it might be the last time she would hear even these unwelcome signals of disunion. The last time she should sit in her old place in the old kitchen. The task she had set herself demanded more than woman's courage, and brave and resolute as was her heart she yet shrank with unacknowledged terror from what lay before her.
If she had had any hope of good results she could have faced the ordeal with greater fortitude. But all was uncertain. The series of actions had brought about this catastrophe in which she was involved. Incidents as fantastic as a dream had woven a web around her freedom. She could not break away from them. She must go on, blindly on, hoping only for results that should mark their limits. The sorrows of life seemed suddenly measureless; only less so than its shames. Both had fallen on her unawares, to torture and pursue, and with the hideous alchemy of fate change simple girl into suffering woman.
Her father's rough voice scarce roused her to respond. Lil's peevish sneers and complaints fell on unheeding ears. They seemed miles away now. For ever apart from her life and its complex meanings.
Without the sun rose higher. Mist and cloud cleared rapidly. She must soon be on her way. There was nothing to detain her.
She put on her bonnet and cloak, and answering Lil's querulous inquiry as to "gallivantin" by saying she was going for a walk, she left the house.
Her quondam step-mother called to her to be back to dinner, and not serve her the trick of the previous day, but the girl gave no answer.
Lil watched her from the window with a sullen curiosity as to her intentions. The fact of a girl wandering off for country tramps meant to her a male attraction in the near distance. But though she could keep the girl's figure in view for miles, and though from time to time, she threw a glance at the receding speck it was still solitary, still trudging on and on over barren moor and bog.
The day wore on to noon. The sunlight faded, and a rising wind laden with snowflakes swooped down upon the lower levels, and whistled ominously round the building. Lil made up a roaring fire, and sat there in the kitchen buried in the romance of high life that seems so fascinating to low. Hour succeeded hour. The warmth of the gloom made her drowsy. She slept peacefully till the entrance of Dick aroused her. Then to the cheerful accompaniment of his oaths and complaints she lit the lamp and prepared the tea.
There was no sign of Molly. To the surly questioning of her father, Lil made surlier response. She was off on some affair of her own. Doubtless to meet a sweetheart. What else should take one tramping miles of moorland in such weather.
The remark led to more words, and recriminations flew from mouth to mouth, for Lil's fondness for "company-walks" was unfortunately of too recent date to be forgotten.
Meanwhile, the sky darkened ominously. Thicker and thicker fell the snow, whirling and twisting in misty circles over the whitened landscape. Track and road had become invisible. In the wide spaces of earth and sky there was no guiding light or landmark visible. And still Moll Udale tarried.
Hour followed hour. The quarrelsome pair made up their differences over a bottle of strong liquor. The night had fallen; but the whirling war went on apace.
The snow was deeper now, and lay in heavy masses and drifts as far as eye could see. Here and there a star peeped out warily, soon to be hidden by the wild rush of wind-driven clouds.
And still Moll Udale tarried.
The inmates of Peak Edge Hall had scattered like a flock of sheep at the first trumpet blast of tragedy. The resident nurse however still remained in charge, there being no authority for her dismissal until Patience Quarn should assume the reins of government. Miss Lavinia came to and fro daily. Nurse Ida looked after the patient, and this gave the little old lady more freedom. Besides, all sense of danger was past and over, and she had no further anxiety on her friend's behalf.
A few days after Molly Udale's departure a terrific snowstorm burst over the whole district. All communication between outlying hamlets and villages was cut off. Roads were rendered impassable, sheep were lost in the drifts, the mail carts were snowed up and had to be temporarily abandoned. The little town of Peak Edge was transformed into a huge bride-cake with a multitude of fantastic ornamentation.
The inmates of the Home looked wistfully out of frosted window-panes. "What was the use of holidays if one was caged up in this fashion?"
Day followed day, and the ice-bound country still lay locked in frozen calm, and rumours of accidents were rife on all sides.
Miss Lavinia was unable to get to the Hall, unable to ascertain any news of Rufus Myrthe, still under detention; unable to hear a word of Molly Udale, who had been absent a week.
She grew anxious and worried. The hitherto peaceful calm of her life had been submerged by a flood of unexpected catastrophies. Inaction, and ignorance of what was forthcoming, only doubled her anxiety.
Dr. Quarn had been buried in the old churchyard, followed to the grave by a very small group of mourners, and a large number of curious spectators. In the room where he had met his death all was locked and sealed, and shut away. The first formal inquiry before the magistrate had brought forth no new evidence, except an admission from a stableman, who averred he had seen "something" get into the room by the window, but had taken no notice as it wasn't the first time he had known the doctor go in and out by that means.
Asked if he could identify the suspected man as the midnight intruder, he stated it was impossible, owing to the darkness and the rain.
Rufus Myrthe was again remanded, and Miss Lavinia wrote to London asking her solicitor to recommend a first-class criminal lawyer to whom she could entrust the case. Meanwhile there was no news of Molly, and the bitter weather closed in around hamlet and vale, shutting in anxious hearts and harrowing suspense with its mists and snow.
Rufus Myrthe was chafing like a wounded lion under this unwarrantable deprivation of freedom. In his outspoken fashion he said sharp truths of law and justice that were not calculated to please those in authority. Least did they please the fussy and self-important old magistrate, newly honoured by a title, and entertaining deep-rooted prejudices against all form of radical or republican government. He had known Dr. Quarn only in his professional capacity, and was entirely ignorant of his moral character. But to him the doctor was an important and useful member of the community, and Rufus Myrthe nothing but an idle young scamp from the backwoods of America, who had come over with some cock-and-bull story of lost property, and having planted himself down coolly at the Hall, had proceeded to interfere and disorganise all matters connected therewith. He had even taken the doctor to task for the treatment of his wife (the nurse had told him this), and had openly betrayed his dislike. Besides his whole manner of comporting himself during the inquest and subsequent inquiry had been such as to rouse the irate old gentleman's deepest wrath. He might not have believed in the young fellow's actual guilt, but he believed in teaching him a lesson as to respect due to those in authority. But Rufus Myrthe after a week of incarceration held opinions somewhat the reverse of respectful. All news of the outside world came to him through Miss Lavinia's letters. At his second appearance she was not in the court. His dogged antagonist, the resident nurse, again repeated her statements, and Dr. Transom confirmed them. The servants were called out, but their evidence was immaterial. The story of the dwarf was treated as an invention of the prisoner, and the magistrate formally committed him to the county gaol to await trial.
Things began to look serious for the young man, and he chafed accordingly. Public interest in himself was not sufficiently sustaining to compensate for these annoyances. A letter from his faithful friend assured him that Molly had started on her quest, and that a first-class lawyer had been engaged on his behalf. No more could be done at present.
Rufus felt that that was true. He was in a tight place, but he must make the best of it. It couldn't last for ever, and he supposed it was possible to get used even to a prisoner's cell.
He was fairly comfortable, and very well treated, the prison officials having a keen sense that in this instance "someone had blundered." His own special attendant in particular was quite won over by the young American's humorous views of the situation, and the ingenuous vocabulary he unloosened in its honour. But despite his attempts at cheerfulness the time dragged heavily, and a certain uneasiness long held at bay began to clutch at his heart.
If the dwarf could not be found? If, even if found, it was impossible to bring the guilt home to him—what then?
He spent long hours in considering and writing down every detail of his case. To him it looked clear and simple enough. How was it that it had been made to represent guilt so horribly.
Even his little lady had been unable to prove that he had remained in the boudoir all those hours. She had fallen asleep. When she awoke it was morning, and—the tragedy was already old.
Some days after he had entered the county gaol, the lawyer engaged by Miss Lavinia sent down his clerk to interview the young man, and get all particulars for framing the case. He was a brisk and cheerful personage, and advised perfect frankness on the part of his client.
"Frankness!" echoed that individual. "Well I guess you can turn me inside out if you care to. I haven't anything to hide, and precious little to tell. It gets over me to know why I'm accused, and how I come to be here, but I reckon brainless idiocy is a going concern in this blamed old country!"
The lawyer's clerk had never enjoyed himself so much. He went back to his chief so assured that the young man was innocent, and that a grave act of magisterial injustice had been committed, that it seemed hardly worth while to get up a defence. It surely would not be a matter of great difficulty to secure the dwarf described by Rufus Myrthe. A creature so extraordinary must attract notice wherever it appeared. In order to commit the crime it must have lurked in the neighbourhood awaiting an opportunity. Surely it had been seen by someone!
The great lawyer, however, had no knowledge of the district he was criticising. Of its marvellous hiding places, its vast tracts of unexplored and half impassable country. Of ignorance and superstition, and last of all of the fact that the very few persons who knew of Japes's existence were so firmly convinced of his satanic origin, that they would not have dared offend him.
However to all concerned, except the unlucky prisoner, there seemed plenty of time before the assizes, and the said prisoner had to summon to his assistance such powers of fortitude and endurance as might best help him in his plight.
The snow at last began to melt on height and moor and valley. A thaw set in rapidly after Christmas, and Miss Lavinia looked daily for Molly's reappearance. But though word came of cleared roads and renewed traffic, no news of or from the girl reached the Home.
The little lady became terribly anxious. What had happened to her? Had she been wise in permitting her to go to that awful place alone?
In despair she wrote to Molly at the Inn, sending the letter by special messenger with instructions to await an answer. The man returned the next day. He delivered a dirty, ill-written scrawl to the old lady.
She tore it open, and read it with some difficulty.
"Moll bain't t'here. She lef afore Chrismas, an' nivir sed wher not whyfore. We thocht as how she wur back at t'Home.
Miss Lavinia fell into a chair, white and speechless. Molly not at the Inn! Where could she be? What had chanced to her?
She stared at the dirty, ill-written note as if it could tell her something more. The signature puzzled her. It was a woman's, yet Molly had said her father lived alone at the Inn.
It seemed the last straw added to her load of long-borne misery, for Molly had the clue to the mystery. It was to Molly Rufus had trusted. To Molly she had confided her scheme to save him. And now—Molly had disappeared.
From point to point, each with a vivid date of improvement, the convalescence of Patience Quarn had advanced till it touched recovery.
Sheltered from all the storms of confusion that had disorganised the household, she lay at peace, resting body and mind in a tranquil atmosphere, and passively submissive to the new conditions that faced her.
It was on the day that she could rise and dress and go downstairs once more that Miss Lavinia had received the news of Molly's disappearance. She had promised to go to the Hall. She knew that Patience Quarn must be told the truth of her husband's death at last. It was impossible to keep it any longer from her knowledge, and she had arranged with Nurse Ida that her patient should remain in the boudoir until her arrival. And now this perplexing news had reached her!
It was some time before she could steady her nerves to face the ordeal before her with necessary composure. Nothing but the fact that Patience would be waiting for her and might perhaps learn the story roughly and harshly from other lips gave her courage. She drove to the Hall in a frame of mind that made piteous contrast to the sweet serenity of bygone years. It seemed to her as if everything Fate had spared her in the past had accumulated into a species of malicious avalanche, and was bent on crushing her to death.
In those past years her affection had been less personal, her life less self-centred. She had loved all humanity, so she thought, and taken no special unit into any closer embrace than friendship. Since she had known Patience Quarn, and later, Rufus Myrthe, that impersonal capacity for placid affection had been disturbed. The disturbance only proved what she had hitherto denied, that to love another is to suffer with that other, as well as rejoice. One is never quite free again.
When she reached the Hall she went straight upstairs to the boudoir.
She found Patience sitting by the fire. She wore a plain black dress, but no cap or other form of widow's mourning. Her face had lost much of its waxen pallor. It wore a faint tinge of recovered health; her eyes seemed larger and deeper. They cast a mystery over the whole beauty of the face. They seemed the abode of suffering and pathos too deep for its beauty, too sad for its youth.
She looked up with a faint smile of welcome as her faithful friend entered the room.
"You are half an hour behind time, Lavinia," she said. Then catching sight of the troubled expression on the familiar face, she paled slightly. "Something has happened? You have bad news?"
"You read me too quickly, Patience," said Miss Lavinia. "Yes, I have heard some bad news. But I had not meant to tell you. I see no use in burdening a third person with unnecessary worries. . . . You look quite your old self, my dear. Are you feeling really strong?"
"Better than I had ever hoped to feel. Come and sit down by the fire. Do you know I feel strangely disinclined to go downstairs, although I am perfectly well? I suppose I am so used to my nest here that I don't care to leave it."
Miss Lavinia took off her cloak and unloosened the strings of her bonnet. Then she seated herself in the comfortable chair opposite her friend.
"Patience," she said gravely, "I wonder if you are strong enough to bear something very painful; something—no one has yet dared to tell you?"
The beautiful face grew very white.
"Is it about Felix?"
"Yes. He did not die quite as you suppose."
"Suicide?" questioned Patience faintly.
"No—worse. His life was taken by violence."
"Ah!"—she shuddered. "I felt there was something kept back. I thought, perhaps, he had destroyed himself. Tell me all, Lavinia. I—I ought to have known before now."
"My dear, you could have done nothing, and I feared the shock might retard your recovery. Do you really wish to hear the whole thing, Patience?"
"From the beginning to the end," she answered.
Miss Lavinia took up the dropped threads one by one, and simply and gently as possible gave the history of that awful night—of Rufus Myrthe's discovery, and of his present condition.
Patience listened in dead silence, interrupting neither by look, nor sign, nor word. When the story was ended she still sat in the same rigid attitude, her eyes fixed on the fire, her hands tightly clasped.
"It is very terrible," she said at last. "But tell me, why are they so sure it was—murder? Might he not have taken an overdose of laudanum, and died before—before——"
Miss Lavinia looked up quickly.
"That theory was considered. But the marks on the throat proved strangulation."
"What of revenge—hatred? The spite of an ignorant mind spending itself on an inanimate object, out of sheer lust of destruction?"
"Is it possible, but why do you suggest it, Patience? Do you know anything? Have you ever heard of this—creature described by Rufus Myrthe? No one believes in its existence!"
"I have—seen it," she said very low.
"You! Patience, where?"
"It was long ago, when I was able to be out, and walk and drive myself. I was in the pony carriage. It was growing dusk—an August evening. I seemed to have lost my way, got into a wrong road. Sitting by the wayside I saw a small figure. I thought at first it was a child's, but the face was old and weird, and oh, so inexpressibly sad. It haunted me for days. It was all huddled up, as I tell you, and in the dusk I could not quite make out the deformity. But I could see it was deformed. I spoke two or three times, but could get no answer, so I drove on. I was out of sight when I heard a low melancholy wail, inexpressibly weird and sad. I stopped the pony and listened. Again it sounded. I felt sure it was from the poor creature I had seen. I turned and drove back. When I came near I saw it was leaning up against the hedge, holding something in its hands. An animal, I think. And, oh! Lavinia, the look on the face was awful! It gripped and shook the thing it held, as I have seen a dog shake a rat. The whole aspect of the creature was changed. I was so terrified I hardly knew what to do. But suddenly it looked up and saw me. In a moment it was gone. I can't describe how. It seemed to leap over the hedge and disappear. I managed to find the road and drive home again. I told Felix what I had seen. He treated it as a joke; said I must have imagined it all. When I persisted, he grew angry. I could not think why, but naturally I dropped the subject."
"And you have never seen it again?"
"Yes—I—I thought so. It was When Felix was away those four days in Derby, as he said. My couch was drawn up near the window. I was looking out into the garden, the wild part, you know, that is shut in by those high rocks. I thought something was moving, an animal it seemed, it gave quick, short leaps and bounds. It disappeared in the bushes. Then presently I saw a face looking up at the house. It was the same weird, pathetic face of the little dwarf I had seen by the Pike Tor-road. I wondered how the unfortunate creature could have found its way here. My window was partly open, and I leant forward and raised it higher. The noise seemed to alarm the poor thing. It sprang back into the bushes and disappeared."
"You never told me?"
"No. You may remember at that time my memory was somewhat uncertain. I would forgot things for days, and then suddenly remember them again."
"But you could, if necessary, swear to the existence of this strange dwarf, as described by Rufus?"
"I certainly could."
"Then—then, Patience, it may lie in your power to save him. I have not told you the whole story yet, but I must now. It is Rufus Myrthe who is accused of murdering your husband. He has been arrested. He is waiting his trial now in the county gaol at Derby."
Patience stared at Lavinia as if she doubted her sanity. Was ever anything so preposterous, so inane, so absolutely unbelievable!
"Rufus Myrthe—accused of murdering—Felix." She let the words fall as if each were difficult to grasp, or fit into an inconceivable puzzle.
"Yes, it sounds like a huge joke to us, who know him, but indeed, Patience, it is very deadly earnest for the poor fellow himself. They wouldn't accept bail, they wouldn't believe in his innocence. They said it was purely circumstantial evidence, but it convicted him sufficiently for arrest. So he was arrested."
"Why was I not told. I could have proved——"
"My dear, you were too ill to be told. He would not hear of it. He said he'd face a thousand things worse than temporary imprisonment sooner than have you bothered. He made Nurse Ida and myself swear solemnly to keep the matter from you until you were well and strong. But I have counted the days, Patience. I have counted the very hours, I think, of late."
Patience sat quite still, but her mind was at work. She guessed well enough why he wanted to spare her this knowledge. He wished to keep her secret from the world. No one had heard of her husband's shameful life, of her own sufferings. He was trying to save her name from being dragged through the mire of public enquiry. Trying to spare her the ordeal of appearing in the witness-box to prove the terms on which she and Felix Quarn had lived—the character of the man she had so lovingly screened; for whose sake she had faced death.
But it could not be. She was not afraid of the truth, and she could not let this quixotic enterprise go further.
"Surely if I can prove that such a creature as this dwarf does exist, and so bear out the statement of Rufus Myrthe, he will be set free!" she said at last.
"I don't know," said Miss Lavinia doubtfully. "If we could have had your evidence at the inquest it might have been of use. But, by-the-way, Patience, can you tell me why the head nurse was so hard on the poor fellow. It was almost like spite. I consider she set Dr. Transom against him also."
Patience Quarn coloured faintly. "She was devoted to Felix," she said, "and she never liked me. Still, these facts need not have made her unjust."
"It was more than injustice, it was a deliberate endeavour to incriminate an innocent man! Then Sir John Goyt backs her up. I thought it was disgraceful to grant a warrant on such scanty evidence, but he did."
"Still," repeated Patience, "we can easily prove his innocence; but of course we must find this dwarf."
Then Miss Lavinia related her plan to do so, and Molly Udale's sudden disappearance. "I am quite alarmed about her. I cannot imagine what has happened."
"Perhaps she is following up some clue," suggested Patience. "She must be quite at home in those regions. I scarcely think anything serious could have happened to her."
They talked the matter over, discussing every possibility, and yet discarding each as impossible.
But Patience Quarn was formulating a plan in her own mind while she listened, and discussed the drift of each predicament that had culminated in this last disaster.
All her lost energy revived under the spur of circumstance. The real had developed, the imaginary was dead. At any cost to herself the truth must be told. And yet, she never asked herself whether her championship of Rufus Myrthe might not really be an added proof of his guilt. She and her husband had lived unhappily, Rufus Myrthe had been her devoted slave. He had discovered the attempt on her life. In his sight Felix Quarn was a murderer by instinct, from whom he had snatched his victim. Might not crime, in such a case, take upon itself the stamp and authority of justice? Or had they quarrelled; in a fit of rage blows been exchanged—a hand to hand struggle? Yet against this came the medical evidence as to the sleeping draught. Dr. Transom had said Felix Quarn had been strangled whilst asleep. Rufus Myrthe would never have stooped to such a deed. Never! His face, his whole attitude towards life, truth, honesty, gave the lie to such a supposition.
That he had been found there at that hour of night, or rather morning, was certainly a strange circumstance, but—it was capable of explanation.
She lifted her pale face suddenly, and looked at Miss Lavinia. Courage and determination lived in her glance.
"He shall not suffer for me," she said. "If the story has to come out—why, it must. Lavinia, I will go to Derby. I will see Rufus. I have wealth, influence. Oh! he must be set free. He must!"
"There are three women working for that now!" said Miss Lavinia, with a little choking sob that had been meant for a laugh.
The monotony of those long, miserable days seemed endless to Rufus Myrthe.
He was only an accused, not a convicted prisoner, and therefore he had no very great hardships to complain of. He was not obliged to mix with criminals. His cell was fairly comfortable. The gaoler, a genial and kind-hearted Irishman, gave him much cheering counsel. Food was good and plentiful. He had books and writing materials, and stated hours for exercise; but still the restraint was terrible for one used all his life to out-door freedom.
Sometimes as he reviewed the strange happenings of those past months he wondered whether Fate was playing off a huge joke at his expense, or really had owed him a grudge and taken this opportunity of paying it. There seemed no end to the complications arising out of his search for the Marth Farm. He had answered his father's letter before this last catastrophe had overtaken him. He was determined not to tell him of it, as long as it was possible to keep the matter secret.
"Why the old man would be equal to bearding the American Consul, and bringing him here in person, besides writing to every paper and bombarding every authority. Reckon there'd be a pretty lively time if he heard of my being in an English prison. Yes, William Rufus A. Myrthe would be a mighty embarrassing person in a civilisation like this! Talking of the Consul though, why shouldn't I——"
He stopped pacing his cell to follow up a train of speculation. But it always led to the same dead-lock; and, as always, he relinquished it with a sigh.
The noise of his door being unlocked gave welcome interruption. The good-humoured visage of Patrick Mallory was smiling at him. "There's a visitor for you, sir," he said politely. "Sure, 'tis yourself's in luck! You're to be allowed to see her in the Governor's room. 'Tis a special order she's got."
Rufus felt the blood rush to his temples. He could not ask a question. In agitated silence he followed his guide through one unlocked door after another, out of passages, across a yard. Then into a room where a bright fire burnt, and a tall, slight figure, dressed in black, turned to greet him, Patience Quarn.
The room seemed to rock and sway before his eyes. He could scarcely believe their evidence. Yet it was—Patience. The low, tremulous music of her voice stole to his dizzied brain with the old spell of peace. He steadied himself by a strong effort.
"Oh, Rufus!" he heard her say. "What must you have thought of my silence? But I never knew. Till yesterday I was told—nothing."
Her hands were stretched out to him. He took them silently. His own were shaking, but those he held were steady, though cold.
"It is so—so wonderful," he said brokenly. "To see you. To see you like this. Why, you are—well—again."
"I am quite well," she said, softly. "And I owe my life to you, Rufus. But sit down. Why, you are trembling like a girl. I have not come here to talk about myself. It is you I think of. You. How has it all come about? Could you not have proved your innocence as well as owned it?"
He seated himself as soon as she had taken a chair also. In his heart was no other feeling than that of sudden, delicious peace. What mattered those past weeks of disaster, and anxiety? She was well. She owed her life to him, and she was here.
She began to speak rapidly and with deep seriousness. Swiftly she ran over the whole case of tragic circumstance. She told him of her own knowledge. She assured him the case should never come to trial with him as the criminal. It must be stopped. Justice must be won for him at any cost.
He let her speak. He let her plead. It was all so novel; so wonderful. Never could such an hour be repeated in his life. It made that life worth living for, dying for, he thought. When she ceased, he lifted his head and looked at her.
"Why, Mrs. Quarn," he said, gently, "there's no need for so much trouble on your part. I have no fear. They could not possibly convict me."
"Then—why are you here?"
"Through some blundering piece of stupidity. That's all."
She thought the "blundering piece of stupidity" had taken a good deal of the youth from his face, the spring and nerve from his frame, the buoyant ring from his voice. She thought, as her deep sad eyes met his, that there was something in their depths that in a woman might have meant tears. How could she know that in a man's eyes it meant only joy.
He could take in little except the delight of her presence, the sweetness of her anxiety, the tremulous, half fearful wonder of seeing her restored to a woman's natural claims on health and strength and beauty.
It was that semi-mysterious, solemn beauty of her face and her deep, deep eyes, that so enthralled him. Unlike and apart from all other women she had always seemed. To-day in her sweet concern and earnestness she was a goddess stooping to inferior mortal, that so she might bless and comfort his worshipping soul.
But all this, strongly as he felt it, was unexpressed. Never had Patience known him so quiet, so self-restrained. Never had she so admired that repressed yet vivid sense of manhood's rights and manhood's determination. It was impossible to fear disaster before that tranquil smile of his. It was doubly impossible to believe that any sane or clear judgment could have placed innocence in such a critical position. And yet—and yet she told herself Rufus Myrthe was in prison, awaiting trial for the most heinous of crimes in the calendar of criminality.
Their interview lasted an hour. Patience told him of Miss Lavinia's exertions on his behalf, of the search for the dwarf. Last of all of Molly's mysterious absence. That fact awoke Rufus to a sense of the old responsibility. For the first time he chafed at his bondage. Had he been free he would have explored every inch of ground around that ill-omened region till he found or gained news of the girl. When he learned that Miss Lavinia was herself going to the Inn, in company with a detective from London, who had been telegraphed for, his mind was somewhat relieved. Surely Japes would at last be tracked to his lair, and the mystery cleared up.
When he was summoned by Mallory's intimation of "Time's up!" Rufus still lingered. The old protective interest asserted itself.
"It is such bitter weather for you to be travelling," he said. "And you look so delicate still."
"Oh! I am not travelling," she said, quietly. "I am staying in the town at the hotel. Nurse Ida is with me, so you need have no anxiety on my behalf."
"Time's up, sir."
"Oh, damn you, Pat Mallory."
"Sure, and don't I know 'tis that you're doing in your sowl all the time. But I must obey me orders."
"Good-bye once more," said Patience, giving him both her hands. "Keep up your courage. Believe me, it won't be for very much longer that you are detained here. And—I'll come again."
He dropped her hands and turned away. She thought how proudly and calmly he bore himself. How, in face of humiliating facts, the last thing to touch him was humiliation.
Then the door closed, and she went her way; every energy, desire, and impulse of her heart set on one thing, the proving of his innocence.
* * * * * *
Miss Lavinia had been very much averse to such a project as Patience Quarn had in view. She could see nothing to be gained by her staying in Derby, and was fearful lest excitement and fatigue should affect her scarcely regained strength. But Patience evinced a determination quite foreign to her usual character and the little old lady could only beseech Nurse Ida to take every possible care of the wilful invalid. Meanwhile she herself, grown desperate, and half fearful that something had happened to Molly Udale, she telegraphed to London for a detective officer.
When the man arrived she was in a ferment of agitation. She felt like a heroine in one of Miss Braddon's murder and mystery stories. What she expected to see was not very definite to herself, but something strikingly different from the quiet, ordinary looking, self-possessed man who had answered her summons. Her first idea was to feed him well; her next to explain his work, or what she considered his work ought to be.
The man listened with respectful attention, but his eyes twinkled as if the whole matter was something of a joke. However, he set off to track Molly Udale with very little delay, and a map of the country as guide. Besides this Miss Lavinia had furnished him with a liberal supply of provisions, and as much money as he modestly requested.
He promised to communicate with her daily by some means—a messenger, if no post or telegraph was handy. Then primed with all the information she could give he set forth, so certain of discovering the missing girl that Miss Lavinia wondered if he had not already some occult knowledge of her doings.
She tried to resume her old life, her old duties, but it was no longer possible. Her mind was for ever on the rack, wondering about Patience Quarn, about Rufus, about the imperturbable detective, whose notes came daily as promised, sent from outlying quarters within a radius of twenty miles, and all more or less vague.
He had gained no information at the Inn, save that Molly had gone for a walk in the direction of the disused coal mine, and never returned. He interrogated old Luke Froggart, but gleaned nothing that was any clue to the girl's actions. He set forth to examine the road she must have taken, but came back as wise as he went. It was nothing but a zig-zag track leading to the old shaft. The closest examination produced no sign of the girl's having reached or left that spot. Patiently he tramped, and explored, and questioned. No one had seen Molly go except her step-mother. No one at all had seen her return. Had she been overtaken by the snow and lost the track? Then surely by this time her body would have been discovered. Dick Udale, old Luke, and the detective, James Knapp, explored and examined the region for miles and miles around, but not a trace of the missing girl rewarded their efforts.
Knapp spent his time between the Inn and the little hamlet and Distley. In none of these places did he secure any information. Now and then he pursued his second quest and tried to glean some knowledge of the mysterious dwarf and his abode. But he found this a tabooed subject, and one that led to a perpetual dead-lock, even under congenial circumstances. He was a shrewd man, and had a professional pride in his successes. It nettled him not a little to be baffled by these blunt country wits. To work and tramp and question all in vain. At last there seemed nothing for it but a return to Peak Edge. He was vexed at his ill-success and resolved to stay at the Inn one more night, and work on Lil's loquacious tongue as a last resource. When he made this resolution he was on his way back from a prolonged examination of the dreary district round the old coal mine and its disused works. He sat wearily down on one of the huge blocks scattered about, and mopped his heated face with a flowered bandana. It was cold in these high regions, but he had been energetic enough to raise his temperature to some degrees above "normal." He scanned the sky warily, being accustomed to its rapid changes, and blissful uncertainty. He thought it fairly settled, and that he might trust himself to reach the Inn without being drenched by rain or blinded by mist.
"Ugh!" he muttered, as his eyes swept the unlovely prospect. "It beats me how any man or woman can live in such a place. You might as well be in the churchyard at once, for all of life or human interest you find here."
He took out his pipe and was about to light it when his glance fell on an object some distance off. He regarded it for a moment or two with his keen eye, sitting quite still, his rough grey clothes blending with the landscape till he seemed a part of it. "I wonder I never noticed that before," he thought. He put his pipe back in his pocket and advanced cautiously.
The ground was abrupt and uneven, and soft in places as a bog. He used his stout stick both to try its firmness and support his steps. The brightness of the winter sun, now near to setting, threw a rosy pink hue over the bleak unpicturesque expanse. It was a living warmth embracing even this dreary spot. James Knapp approached the place that had attracted his attention, still keeping his eye on the object he had noted. It was a small, shapeless figure huddled together, and seemingly intent upon some occupation. The man stood still and watched its proceedings with some curiosity. Was it digging, or——
Suddenly, like a flash, a suspicion came to him. The Dwarf! His search was at last rewarded.
Fearful of disturbing the creature and so losing trace of it again, he crouched down among the broken boulders. His feet had evidently made no noise in that pathless morass, for though he was quite close the dwarf went on with his occupation as if alone.
The rosy glow did not last long. It changed to fainter and yet fainter tints. At last a dull, grey monotony made up all there was of light.
Then the dwarf suddenly lifted his head and glanced quickly around. Whether suspicion or fear touched him to consciousness, James Knapp could not guess, but in a moment he was flying with quick, squirrel-like bounds over the ground.
Ink-black darkness, sleep, unconsciousness, strange dreams,—and then again sleep. Through each and all of those, thought deadened, brain benumbed, Molly Udale had passed and struggled back to life.
Was it night? Was it day? Where was she, or what had represented herself?
She turned uneasily, and the movement caused her intense pain. Every limb and bone in her body ached. A groan of agony escaped her lips. They were parched and dry. Intense thirst consumed her, and in this terrible gloom she could see nothing, could give no guess as to where she was. Sudden terror seized her. She called aloud. Then she heard a sound as of someone moving. Presently a faint light shone in the distance like a star twinkling in the gloom of a midnight sky. It wavered unsteadily, then drew nearer and yet nearer. She watched it with dull wonder. Pain and weariness held her so closely that even fear could not touch her now. She half-closed her eyes. Then the consciousness of some near presence forced itself upon her. She looked up.
The face gaping down at her was a weird yet not unkindly one. Between the mists of pain and swooning senses, she recognised the pity and the kindness, and whispered of her thirst. Cool water touched her aching lips, and revived her, but that pain in her limbs revived also. Every joint seemed suddenly to hold a living agony on its own.
"Oh, where am I? What has happened?" she groaned.
A voice, uncouth, yet gentle, answered she was safe, and bade her rest, but the girl suddenly roused herself, and supported by one elbow looked around. She saw an irregular, rocky cavern, stretching away into darkness and feebly illuminated by a solitary light. She herself was lying on a pile of moss and furze covered by some ragged, woollen blankets. Crouched by her side, indistinct, yet visible as her wide and frightened eyes grew used to the gloom, was a small, dwarfed figure.
White and still as death the girl gazed, and looked into the face so near her own. The puzzle of how she came here was still unanswered. Her brain was, as yet, too dazed to gather up the broken threads that severed memories. When she knew who was beside her she shrank suddenly away.
Then a voice spoke gently.
"Don't 'ee fear—don't 'ee. I winna harm a hair o' thy gowden head, Molly Udale."
"How do 'ee knaw me?" she gasped, surprise overcoming terror.
"M'appen I ha' knawed 'ee more years than 'ee kin count. Watched 'ee as I ha' promised th' dead. There ba'int no enmity twixt us two, child. Had na' 'ee bin so fear't an' skeer'd o' me I'd ha' told 'ee so, lang syne."
The voice was so gentle, so infinitely sad, that the girl's terror subsided. A wondering pity took its place.
"Art thee—are thee, Japes?" she faltered, in the old vernacular.
"I be called so. All I knaw o' life i' th' world outside is what I've heerd fra' t'ould woman, Nan Dottery. I ha' na knawn but twa friends i' all my life, Moll. One was thy mither, whom I luved dear,—t'other th' old herb seller o' moorside as nussed an' cared me when I was a child. Th' affliction I ha' gotten ta bear was na fault o' mine, but it ha' set wide space atween me an' all livin' folk. Nane ha' had a kind word, or a pitiful thocht o' the puir dwarf as ha' only had his maimed body an' his sair heart to prove him human. Nane ha' greeted him with aught but screech o' terror, or blow o' spite. An' times he war mad wi' rage against all humans. Cruel, bad, an' evil spoken as he'd awnly knawed 'em to be. O' lovin' kindness he's knawn nane; o' speech or ony sort o' learnin' he's had but hissel to teach, wi' scraps o' book-readin' or pictures as t'ould herb-woman 'ud bring ta him. That beasts an' birds lia' bin his awnly frinds; tha wild an' barren moors his awnly hame."
"How—how did I come here?" asked Molly, faintly.
"I found 'ee half dead i' t' snaw, an' I carried 'ee to by cave. Thee'st bin nigh death I fear. Soon as 'twas clearer o' th' drifts, I got t'ould Dame ta come to 'ee. She be here still, so dinna ha' ony fear, lass. She be a rare good nuss, an' she's tuk all care o' thee. She be asleep prisint time, an' so I came whin I heerd 'ee callin'. But I'll wake her an' ye will."
"No, no," said Molly, faintly. "Let her bide. I be only thirsty, and my limbs are all o' an ache. But my head seems clearin' like at last."
For a moment she lay still. Then suddenly she asked how long she had been here. He could not tell the days, or weeks. But when she spoke of Christmas he said that was long past; the old Dame had told him so. Molly grew uneasy at this. So long it seemed since she had set out on her voyage of discovery, and she had done nothing. Had lain here helpless, her fate unknown.
She tried to raise herself, but every movement meant a renewal of pain. What was to be done, she thought. Rufus Myrthe in prison; Miss Lavinia waiting for news of her; and here she lay unable to move; or send any word to either.
Then suddenly, as her brain grew steadier, she remembered that at least her quest was ended. She had found the dwarf. But even as she thought of that came rushing over her like a whirlwind the whole tragic, awful story told her by old Nan Dottery. How could she have forgotten it—even for one moment?
As she lay, shivering with pain and terror, and confused thoughts, a vision swept before her. She saw once more the old settee and the silent figure writing, writing, that endless story.
Alas! alas! It needed no written words to bring the truth home. Instinct told the girl what those frenzied scraps contained. And instinct set her shuddering from the voluntary task she had recklessly set herself to accomplish. Yet her sense of antagonism had vanished before the sad, weird face, and the pathetically-told story of this creature, cursed by fate and the wrong-doing of others.
Could he be indeed the terrible monster folk had fled from; the enemy of Rufus Myrthe; the murderer of Felix Quarn?
She heard him speaking again. The inexpressible pathos of his voice wrung her very heart. How could she accomplish her task now? How deliver up to justice one whom a relentless Fate had hounded on to madness? In whose veins ran the blood that filled her own; whose helpless tongue had babbled to the same ears of motherhood. How could she do it?
Even to use him as a messenger, to bid him seek out her protectress, and give news that she lived, would be to throw him into danger, to snare his helplessness. Again she groaned. How could she?
He thought bodily pain tormented her, and gave her a soothing potion the old herb-woman had brewed. Mercifully it deadened physical suffering and mental perplexity. The girl slept.
The poor mis-shapen creature watched her with pitying and most tender eyes, bedewed by tears of human sympathy.
* * * * * *
Again she woke.
A faint light shone throughout the cavern showing that daylight had some method of illumining it. It was large and vaulted, and seamed, with glistening spars, and branched off into smaller caverns or galleries. High above the light streamed in; a mere, faint speck it was, yet an active agent amidst so much gloom and blackness.
Memory was quick and vivid now. The girl raised herself despite aching limbs, and glanced eagerly about. From a branch cave to the right came a dull red glow; as of firelight. She called, and the figure of old Nan hobbled forward quickly.
Her greeting was kindly, and her satisfaction evident. It had been a "troublous job," but her efforts were rewarded. After a brief talk she assisted Molly into the inner cave, where a smouldering fire of peat was burning. Here she prepared a hot bath, medicated with many strange herbs and powders. She had half-stewed the girl's aching limbs in this preparation, and then rubbed them with some strange pungent ointment that set them tingling and glowing, and wore out the sense of aching.
After this treatment Molly could stand and move, though not without some sense of stiffness and pain. Yet to feel her limbs, to be once more conscious and self-helpful was a delight.
The old Dame talked busily all the time. She narrated the girl's discovery, buried and half-frozen in the snow. How the "lil' man" had carried her—the Lord knew how—to his own hiding place, this unknown cavern; and then come to her for aid, and kept her here snug and warm, till Moll showed signs of recovery.
"This cave be a mighty queer place," the old woman went on. "Japes dew say as how one part leads ta th' ould pit wheer th' miners used ta work. An' I dew knaw meself that theer's a underground passage comes out nigh ta my ould hut a-top o' th' moor. 'Twas that way he brought me. Skeert I war too; but the lil' man had his lantern an' helped me wonderful. I dunna knaw how he gets th' food, but he awnly laffs an' says he takes fra fear what he's ne'er gotten fra love. Anyways, I've had na stint o' comfort, an' cud boil an' bake as 'twar a proper kitchen. I've wondered times tha' smoke has na bin seen, but Japes dew say as how it twists an' travels along tha' roof o' th' cave so that whin it gits ta upper earth 'tis like a wisp o' mist o'er th' moorside. Wunnerful warm an' comf'llbe it be down ta here, tew. I ha' na' much wish ta leave it. Tha' lil' man he hav' made wunnerful wark wi' th' place. His parler, an' his kitchen, an' his sleepin' room, whar you be. Years an' years he ha' bin here an' ne'er a sowl above ground knaws o' it."
"'Tis amazin'," said Molly.
"It be a' that," answered old Nan, nodding her palsied head, oracularly.
"But I must be gettin' out o't," continued Moll. "I canna bide here longer, Dame. I ha' something to do above ground, an' nane too much time ta do it."
"Thee canna stir a day or more yet, Moll, lass; so dinna fash yersel' o'er th' matter. 'Twud be no manner o' use did 'ee try ta walk. Thee cud na' get half-way ta' th' Inn."
"I wonder what they think has become of me?" said the girl, suddenly. "Dame, sure I ought ta send word I'm safe."
"M'appen Lil or thy feyther care so much as 'twuld spile a night's rest," said the old woman, sarcastically. "Bide thee, bide thee, child. Theer's na need ta fret thysel' o'er kith or kin. An' now thee'lt go back ta bed an' lay theesel' down, an' drink a sup o' barley broth an' sleep. How thee'st 'scaped th' rheumatick fever's more nor I kin tell."
"Must I go back to bed?" rebelled Molly. "I feel quite well."
But the old woman was inexorable, and Molly was fain to obey her. She found, too, when she tried to walk that she was still very weak and shaky. The old dame shook up what represented the bed, and wrapped the girl up in her own warm cloak, and gave her the hot fragrant soup she had prepared. After which Molly again dropped off to sleep.
Whether her slumbers had been long or short she could not tell. She was suddenly aroused by a sound of voices, a flash of light, and starting up saw two figures advancing from the end of the cavern, each carrying a lantern. They waved the light from side to side as if uncertain how to proceed.
Slowly and cautiously they came forward, and as the foremost figure held its lantern aloft Molly recognised her father.
With a faint cry the girl started up. The cry echoed through the cavern, and sounded again and again in weird repetition.
The lantern swung to and fro. A hoarse voice shouted back.
Again she called. "Father! Here—'tes I,—Molly!"
She saw two figures advancing through the gloom of the huge cave. Treading warily as if on insecure ground. One was Dick Udale, the other a stranger.
"Hell an' thunder, gell, how cum'd 'ee here?" cried Dick's voice, less surly than its wont by reason of new surprises.
The girl laughed and cried hysterically. It was all so extraordinary, and she was still so weak and helpless.
"There, there, dunnot 'ee be so fulish," cried Dick. "Tell us how 'ee cum 'ere, an' if ye ha' seen ought o' th' Dwarf, name o' Japes? He lives somewhere hereabouts."
"Japes," faltered Moll, looking at the face of the strange man who held the lantern. "What do 'ee want him for, father?"
"Nivir ye mind. Is it here anyways he lives?" demanded her father.
The girl shrank back on her rude couch. "I—I dun knaw," she faltered.
"Come, my lass," said the other man cheerily. "We wish him no harm. 'Tis pure chance we discovered this cave in looking for you. Does he dwell here, do you know?"
"Yes," she said. "'Tis he who saved my life; who found me in the snow nigh dead. Oh! you winna harm him, will ye, sir?"
"Harm him! Of course not. Don't scare yourself, is he hereabouts?"
He looked in the direction of the flickering light in what Nan Dottery called her "kitchen." Moll made no reply. But Dick and the detective had drawn their own conclusions. They whispered together for a moment, and then moved stealthily down the twisting paths of the cave. The girl lay back in silent terror. What could they want with Japes? Was it possible——
A savage cry cut short her surmises. Shouts, scuffling, the feeble remonstrance of the old herb-woman sounded and re-echoed in bewildering confusion.
Then the light flashed forth again. She saw the strange man stumble forward. His face was bruised, his hat had fallen off, but a certain triumph as of hard-won victory shone in his eyes. His hand gripped the shoulder of the unfortunate dwarf, now a handcuffed prisoner.
* * * * * *
Life once so tame and uneventful flew now on tragic wings for Molly Udale.
She had been conveyed back to the Inn, and found that Miss Lavinia had sent there many comforts and luxuries in readiness for her arrival. But question as she might, the girl could learn nothing of the dwarf or of Rufus Myrthe.
Lil was brief on the former subject. The lil' man had gotten hissel' into a scrape as the law took count o', and had therefore been captured and imprisoned. More she did not know.
It seemed to Molly that the capture of Japes must lead to the immediate freedom of Rufus Myrthe. Here was proof that his story was correct. If indeed a crime had been committed, the arrest of the supposed murderer by legal authority surely meant that no further suspicion could possibly attach itself to the young American.
She puzzled and tortured herself over the matter until she was in danger of falling ill again.
Wild weather raged over the moorside. No communication was possible owing to heavy snow falls, but within the Inn was a good store of creature comforts. Blazing fires roared up the old chimney, and in the quaint settle, sacred so long to that sad figure of Silence, now crooned and crouched the old herb-woman, who had kept her secret so faithfully.
Moll's bedroom had been made comfortable by rugs and curtains, and a cushioned folding-chair; all sent by Miss Lavinia. There the girl sat during those long wintry days, listening to the wailing blast, watching the heavy-falling snow, gazing with wistful, wearying eyes over those dim peaks, beyond whose desolate chain lay the one object of her thoughts.
She rarely spoke. Never by any chance did she let fall her secret. Bit by bit she was piecing the puzzle together in her own mind. Sometimes impatient of an ignorance that held back truth, sometimes shuddering at thought of what those scattered papers might reveal. The threads of her life were twisted into a double strand of pain and dread. What she had learnt from the poor maimed dwarf had so overwhelmed her with pity that her intention had been to warn, not to betray him. She was thankful that the matter of his arrest had passed entirely out of her hands. She tried to believe that he was not guilty of the murder of Dr. Quarn. The sad face, the pleading voice the unutterable pathos of his history, all spoke to her of misfortune, but not of guilt. She was consumed with anxiety to see Rufus Myrthe once more, and tell him this. She could not forget the dumb misery of the poor creature's look as he was led handcuffed and helpless through his cavern home.
That look had seemed to beseech her help. Conscience had decided for her that such help was obligatory on her part.
She wished now that she had spoken to Japes about the murder on that one opportunity. He had seemed so gentle and tractable. It might have been possible to have won his confidence. The tragedy that linked their lives was only partly known to her. But it was a terrible one. Too terrible for her innocent mind to follow to a final issue. Since that first shock and agony had come to her, her mind had regained a more even balance. She could take many things into account, she could believe that her mother's past history held tragedy, yet not absolute guilt. The truth was still hidden; locked away in those unread confessions. Sometimes she determined that they always should be—unread.
She knew enough. To know more would but mean more unhappiness. The past could never be undone, and the deeper note of tragedy associating this unfortunate being with the murder of Dr. Quarn struck now an answering note of retribution.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile the subject of her troubled meditations was proving a difficult one to deal with. Brought face to face with Rufus Myrthe, the latter at once identified him, and described his attitude as seen through the window on the night of the murder. But the dogged silence of the dwarf and the impossibility of securing any witness to substantiate the young man's statement still acted as obstacles in the way of his release.
Though the law has a happy theory of believing in innocence till guilt is proved, it rarely carries out that theory to the satisfaction of—innocence.
Rufus Myrthe's case was no exception.
The story given out to the country far and near by press, and public gossip, was arousing wide interest. Excitement and speculation were rife on all sides. Patience Quarn had confided to Dr. Transom the story of that dastardly attempt on her life. She had also interviewed the wise old magistrate who had sent Rufus into custody. Before him she laid so many surprising facts, that only professional obstinacy prevented him from acknowledging an error, unwarrantable and gross.
But he would not acknowledge it until forced to do so, and the two faithful women knew that the only thing to force him would be the confession of the real criminal.
Neither Patience nor Miss Lavinia had had the courage to interview the dwarf. But they knew of him, his appearance, his silence, his dogged obstinate manner. They spoke timidly to each other of a possible visit. Yet neither felt inclined to give that visit a definite date. While still hovering on the brink of decision, the matter was settled for them by a letter from Molly Udale to Miss Lavinia.
The little old lady was not disposed to be critical as to writing or spelling. Both had presented grave difficulties, and had taken up much time. But the contents were gravely important. For in the letter Molly declared that she believed that she could induce the dwarf to speak on the subject of the murder if only she could manage to see him.
Armed with the letter Miss Lavinia came straight to the county town, where Patience still remained. The Hall was shut up and left to the charge of a caretaker, all the servants having refused to stay under such ghastly circumstances. Patience herself had dismissed the resident nurse, paying her a quarter's salary in lieu of notice. What she knew of that amiable person she hinted plainly enough to avert future misunderstandings. With Dr. Transom on her side she had less fear of the one malicious witness to whom Rufus owed his present incarceration.
Miss Lavinia sent a carriage for Molly as soon as she heard she was able to travel. The girl came first to the Home, where the girls made a heroine of her afresh. The next day she travelled to Derby.
The fact of the Governor of the county gaol being a family friend gave Patience Quarn various privileges. She had little difficulty therefore in procuring Molly an order to visit the dwarf.
The girl faced the ordeal with a courage born of new experiences and emotions. Perhaps the newest and most startling of any was her brief interview with Patience Quarn.
She had never seen her before. When she did she could scarcely attend to her instructions or advice, so startled was she by her wonderful beauty and that exquisite charm of speech and manner so peculiarly her own. Never had Molly so fully recognised the wide difference between class and class. Never felt so vivid a sense of her own roughness, and boorishness, and lack of culture.
She left that presence half dazed. She counted all the signs and tokens of interest betrayed for Rufus Myrthe. The echo of that tremulous voice, and the words, "He saved my life, I can never repay the debt, but I must try,"—still filled the girl's ears. Rufus Myrthe was the friend of this beautiful woman. He had done her a great service, and now every energy was being spent on proving his innocence. If she succeeded——?
A strangely cold, sick, feeling swept over the girl as she asked that question. It ought not to concern her, and yet it did. Her activity and her energies suddenly dropped to zero. She was not working for him as she had fondly imagined. She was only helping a fairer and more privileged assistant.
When at last she found herself in the prison audience-room, confronting the poor, defenceless wretch, who had suddenly become an important factor in her history, she felt as if all power of speech had left her. She looked at the pinched, cadaverous face, the lack-lustre eyes, the feeble, shapeless form, and dumbly wondered why Providence had ever dowered it with human life or human claims.
Some gleam of pleasure and intelligence lighted the weird face as Molly spoke. The warder stood away by the door. They could converse freely. She told him she was well again, and thanked him brokenly for saving her life, but he made no reply.
Then she spoke of his capture, and gently and warily conveyed that if he would but speak out the truth of that awful night he might be set free.
The word "free" brought some sign of gladness to the poor wretch. All his life had been spent in wild wanderings on moor and height; amongst the forest creatures he had loved and known, and by whom he had been neither shunned nor feared.
This close air and confinement had had a disastrous effect upon him. What intellect he possessed seemed to have forsaken him. His physical condition was one of suffering and terror.
But by slow degrees the girl won him to speak. It was wonderful how she roused him and guided his wandering thoughts into the desired channel. But after reaching a certain point he grew obstinate again. He would not say whether he had been at the Hall on the night of the murder, or forced his way through the window of the study.
In vain she hinted, questioned, and suggested. He remained dumb as on the occasion of his examination. Only when with a sigh of despair the girl turned to go did he display some sign of relenting.
"Why do 'ee ask?" he said. "It canna be concern o' thine?"
"It is," said Molly. "It means saving the life of one who has been the best friend I ha' ever known."
Japes shook his shaggy head in a queer tremulous fashion. "One that ha' bin good to 'ee, Moll?" he repeated slowly. "An' how be his life consarned wi' ony doin's o' mine?"
"Because ye could show that he didna do some cruel, fearful deed as folks do say he's done. Ah, Japes, think a bit; do 'ee try. Thee wadna harm the birds or beasts that roam th' forest. Why should'ee harm a human creature that's ne'er harmed thee?"
"I'd like to kill an' hurt all men folk as dew live, an' shame me' wi' their strong, straight limbs, their bold looks, their smirkin' faces," he said sullenly. "Why do I be a sport an' a mock to 'em. Why ha' I ne'er heerd a word fra ony man save oath, or abuse, or craven fear? An' he——"
Suddenly he clenched his hands, and a look of vicious rage made him terrible. Molly's face grew white. She stepped back a pace or two.
"What had he—ivir done?" she faltered.
"Bin my curse an' creator," said the dwarf savagely. "Done cruel wrong to her as bore me. Dinna ask me how I dew knaw, Moll. I dew. A piteous tale o' wrong be layed at his door. An' I ha' swore over her dead body as i 'ud revenge it—soon or late. But whin the time cum——"
He stopped abruptly. Molly was trembling with anxiety. If he would only speak on, only confess. But he stood staring in a dazed fashion around, moving his head slowly from side to side.
"Did it cum?" he went on hoarsely. "Seems as I wer waitin' years an years to find him. An' thin whin I seed him lyin' asleep, an' crep in by the windy, an' stood by his side—he wudna move nor speak."
"Was he—was he dead?" faltered the girl, breathlessly.
Again there was silence. The warder who had turned slightly towards them, gave the girl a warning look.
"He wer dead, an' be domm'd ta him!" said the dwarf savagely. "I seized his throat, and shook him till a' th' teeth in his handsome head rattled-like. I couldna make him wake nor hear. Then I layed him back, an' tuk his things an' flung 'em o'er th' flure o' his room, an' I mockt and jeert at him lyin' theer so helpless. I wud ha' lept on his body, an' stampt out th' smiles o' his cruel lips wi' blows, but I heerd a sound as skeert me, an' I scramblit thro' th' windy an' away. I war' glad o' what I'd seen an' done. Glad that nivir again wud he rise an' dew th' harm an' evil deeds he done sae often. I will say na more, Molly. I will na."
"Thee'lt say this whin they axes ye, Japes, winna ye? For then they'll set 'ee free. Think o't. Free and happy, and ne'er a inimy any more. Oh! Japes, ye'll say it—promise for—thy mother's sake?" cried the girl eagerly.
She burst into a sudden sobbing, her heart was so full. Relief was so great that her over-strung nerves gave way beneath long tension.
The warder approached and led his prisoner back to his cell. An office excessively repugnant, for the dwarf seemed to him piteously unlike any human thing of moral responsibility. He was physically weak and helpless. He scarce touched food. Prison life was nothing short of a living death to him.
Moll wiped her streaming eyes.
"You heard what he said?" she asked the man when he returned.
He nodded. "Yes. He's confessed. Get him to do it afore legal authority, and t'other chap can be released."
"But there was no murder!" exclaimed the girl. "Didn't ye hear? Dr. Quarn was dead already!"
"I hain't got nothing to say to that," said the man. "The inquest should have found it out. But there, I never seed such a muddle of a case as this be."
* * * * * *
The three women working every energy on Rufus Myrthe's behalf gave the rusty machinery of the law scant rest until they had achieved their object.
Perhaps no one suffered so much at their hands as did Dr. Transom. The case had mainly depended on medical evidence. Whether Felix Quarn had died from an overdose of the sleeping draught or from violence? The confession of the dwarf set that matter at rest, and also effectively proved Rufus Myrthe's account of that night to be correct. The noise, the chuckling laugh, the escape through the window, his own entrance and discovery.
He was released at last, though bound over to appear when the case came for trial. But long before the Assizes were due the unfortunate dwarf had paid the penalty that all free wild life pays for the trap or cage of human kindness! He pined and sickened, and was removed to the prison infirmary, where he died. With him the nine days wonder was over, and Felix Quarn's dishonoured memory left to the contempt or the pity of his fellows.
Patience Quarn, who had taken a horror of the Hall and its associations, left it shut up, and went to stay with Miss Lavinia, pending a period of travel they had both promised themselves.
Molly Udale came back to the Home in her old position, and was considered quite a heroine of adventure by the girls. But she would seldom speak of that time and of her sufferings, though the story of the strange dwarf was now openly discussed.
The Sundays were no longer red-letter days, for Rufus Myrthe made no attempt to take up those long broken threads. As ever, he was kind and friendly and brotherly, but that awful time of suspense had left indelible marks upon his nature. Had sobered and matured it, and shown him more of his heart and feelings than anyone outside of his confidence supposed. He had resolved to trouble no further about that lost heritage. For this reason he sought Dick Udale, and after a lengthy and stormy interview succeeded in placing Molly in what by law and right meant his own position. The matter was made less difficult as Lil had tired of her temporary honours and forsaken the Inn for a place as barmaid in a commercial hotel at Macclesfield. Dick Udale being in a fair way of drinking himself to death agreed to leave all he possessed to Moll, in consideration of Rufus Myrthe's resignation of claims.
Miss Lavinia was somewhat disposed to cavil at this behaviour on the part of her favourite. But he affirmed he had had enough of law to last him a lifetime. And if seeking for missing registers and title deeds, the finding of proofs, and the fighting for rights, was to mean his life in England, he preferred to return to his own country.
The night he announced this determination he had been dining at the Home with Patience and Miss Lavinia.
There was surprise, but unfeigned regret, on the two faces, as he finished his statement.
"Then you are returning to America? Oh, Rufus!"
The little old lady's eyes and voice were eloquent of bereavement.
"It's very kind of you to be so sorry," he answered. "But I've had a pretty rough spell here, taking one thing with another, and, but for your kindness, I'd have been glad to be quit of it long ago. Taken as a spectacular drama my experiences would have made a pretty fair show. As a personal memory I'm not exactly keen on them."
He caught sight of Patience Quarn's face, and saw it suddenly whiten. With a rush of vivid penitence he burst out again: "Don't think, Mrs. Quarn, that I wouldn't do it all over again for your sake and your happiness. I can never tell you how proud I am that I've had the good luck to be of any service. But—I'd best go back—home."
Her eyes met his. She did not speak. A silence filled to the brim with sorrow and pain, and longing, and regret filled each heart, and seemed to hold the room in a spell of restraint.
Then Patience Quarn spoke. "We shall be more sorry to lose you than we can say, Rufus. But you will return one day. You will not go out of our lives with your 'good-bye' to the Peak country?"
"I hope not," he said, somewhat huskily. "But what's in my mind is another sort of plan, Mrs. Quarn. You and Miss Moneyash are going to have a spell of travel. Why don't you leave the old world for a look at the new? My people aren't what you'd call grand folk, but they're good, core through, and kind and hospitable. They'd be proud to know you; and I'd be more proud to introduce the two best friends I've ever had in this or any country."
He looked pleadingly from one face to the other. Miss Lavinia seemed a little startled, but Patience Quarn's eyes held a deep and tender light that was new to them.
"Let me answer for myself," she said. "In a year from this day, Rufus Myrthe, I promise you shall find me in New York, if—you care to look for me."
"Care?"—something leaped into eyes, face, voice. He felt like one trembling on the edge of a great precipice. Dizzy, afraid to glance before him for fear. But was it fear, or joy—a possible joy?
For this precipice was Happiness!
When he spoke again his voice thrilled with hope. Miss Lavinia looked at his face, and kindling eyes, and followed them to the magnet of attraction with a sort of breathless wonder.
This—had been happening under her very eyes and she in ignorance of it. She thought with a sudden heart pang of Molly. Poor Molly—and her plans for her. And yet—this was better. How strange it should never have occurred to her before!
There was nothing abnormal in the situation. Her young Quixote had but borne out his aforetime character. He had served valiantly, chivalrously, for the moral and physical salvation of this object of his worship. Was it wonderful that a stronger and more passionate emotion should be the outcome of his service, and her gratitude.
Presently she left the room, and left them to themselves.
It was partly instinct, partly her natural sympathy, that led her to seek Molly Udale.
The girl came to her in the little official room where another momentous interview had taken place. She looked older, sadder, paler, than on that occasion. A great change had come over her since that terrible adventure in the snow. Since she had heard of the tragedy that linked so many lives with that of Felix Quarn. It was partly of that time Miss Lavinia wished to speak, remembering what the girl had told her of the papers she held, and yet of whose contents she was ignorant.
It occurred to the old lady that they might bear also upon the heritage of the farm. Might throw some light upon all that Rufus Myrthe had resigned.
She told the girl of this, and of what her young champion had done for her, and of his intention of returning to America. Of that intention she spoke gently and guardedly, with a knowledge of the girl's heart, and a woman's desire to spare her humiliation, or self-betrayal. But Molly was perfectly self-possessed. From the hour she had seen Patience Quarn she had instinctively felt why Rufus Myrthe had so plainly kept to cool friendliness and brotherly interest in all matters appertaining to herself. She was far too simple-minded, and too conscious of her many shortcomings to blame him for any misleading interpretation put upon his actions by others. To her he had always been the same.
To hear that he was leaving the country for "good and all" hurt her less than the thought that she might have had to learn that harder lesson of womanhood—concealment of feelings. In time she would grow reconciled to this heart loneliness. In time she would learn that the cruelty of self-enlightenment is less hard to bear than a prolonged self-deception.
The interview was nearly over, and Miss Lavinia was priding herself upon its diplomatic success, when there came a knock at the door. A well-known voice asked, "May I come in to wish you good-night, Miss Moneyash?"
Molly's face flushed scarlet and then grew white, as Miss Lavinia answered the inquiry with a placid, "of course."
"Why, Molly, you here?" exclaimed the young man. "How's that? I thought all you girls were sent to bed at hen-roost."
"I have been having a long talk with Molly," said Miss Lavinia. "I have told her all you have done for her future prior to your leaving this country. She is overwhelmed with gratitude and surprise."
He laughed. "I guess she looks it. But don't be too grateful, Molly. 'Tis easy generosity giving back something you've never had, and don't care to fight for."
"You've allays been good to me," faltered the girl. "And if Miss Moneyash will excuse me, I'd like to tell 'ee—you, I mean, sir, something as I've tried to say often, and couldn't. It's—it's about those papers—of mother's."
Rufus Myrthe's face grew very grave. For how long had he forgotten this link in the chain of their histories. For how long had that scrap of paper told so much, and yet held back—more?
"I know what you mean, Molly," he said. "But there's no hurry now. I have even thought—sometimes, that there might be no need for you to read—those confessions."
Her face grew white and eager. Her lips trembled. "Oh!" she cried. "If only I need not read them—ever—ever! If only what I've heerd might rest unspoken—in my heart—as it lay in her's."
Rufus Myrthe held out his hand and took her clasped and trembling fingers into its strong grasp.
"I thank God you've said that, Molly," he said gravely, almost solemnly. "She chose silence as her portion. We—will not break it."
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia