A LOUD ROLL of drums beneath my windows, the inspiriting music of trumpets, the lively measured stamp of feet. The troops with General Amherst at their head were marching down St. James’s Street on their way to embark for Canada, and the tune to which they marched sang in my head that day as I rode out of London. The beat of my horse’s hoofs kept time to it, and at Brentford a girl singing in a garden of apple-trees threw me a snatch of a song to fit to it.
She sang, and I caught the words up as I rode past. The sparkle of summer was in the air, and an Indian summer, if you will, at my heart. I slept that night at Hartley Row, and the next at Down House, and the third at a little inn some miles beyond Dorchester. A brook danced at the foot of the house, and sang me to sleep with the song I had heard at Brentford, and, as I lay in bed, I could see out of my window the starlight and the quiet fields white with a frost of dew and thickets of trees very black and still; and towards sunset upon the fourth day, I suddenly reined in my horse to one side and sat stone-still. To my left, the road ran straight and level for a long way, and nowhere upon it was there a living thing; on each side stretched fields and no one moved in them, and no house was visible. That way I had come, and I had remarked upon the loneliness. To my right, the road ran forward into a thick wood, and vanished beneath a roof of overhanging boughs. It was the aspect of that wood which took my breath away, and it surprised me because it was familiar. There was a milestone which I recognised just where the first tree overhung the road; there was a white gate in the hedge some twenty paces this side of the milestone. I knew that too. Just behind where I sat there should be three tall poplars ranged in a line like sentinels, the wood’s outposts; I turned, and in the field behind me, the poplars reached up against the sky. I had no doubt they would be there, yet the sight of them fairly startled me. I had seen them—yes, but never in my life had I ridden along this road before. I had seen them only on the map in my lodging at St. James’s Street.
The sun dropped down behind the trees, and the earth turned grey. I sat there in the saddle with I know not what superstitious fancies upon me. I could not but remember that the traveller had ridden into the wood, and had not ridden out and down the open bank of grass upon the other side. “What if his horse has stumbled?” Clutterbuck had asked. “What if he is lying at the roadside under the trees?” I could see that picture very clearly, and at last, very clearly too, the rider’s face. I looked backwards down the road with an instinctive hope that some other traveller might be riding my way in whose company I might go along. But the long level slip of white was empty. All the warmth seemed to have gone from the world with the dropping of the sun. A sad chill twilight crept over the lonely fields. A shiver caught and shook me; I gathered up the reins and rode slowly among the trees, where already it was night.
I rode at first in the centre of the highway, and found the clatter of my horse’s hoofs a very companionable sound. But in a little the clatter seemed too loud, it was too clear a warning of my approach, it seemed to me in some way a provocation of danger. I drew to one side of the road where the leaves had drifted and made a carpet whereon I rode without noise. But now the silence seemed too eerie—I heard, and started at, the snapping of every twig. I strained my ears to catch the noise of creeping footfalls, and I was about to guide my horse back to the middle of the road, when I turned a corner suddenly, and saw in front of me in a space where the forest receded and let the sky through, lights gleaming in a window.
I set spurs to the horse and galloped up to the door. The house was an inn; the landlord was already at the threshold, and in a very short while I was laughing at my fears over my supper in the parlour.
“Am I your only guest to-night?” I asked.
“There is one other, sir,” returned the landlord as he served me, and as he spoke I heard a footstep in the passage. The door was pushed open, and a young man politely bowed to me in the entrance.
“You have a very pretty piece of horseflesh, sir,” said he, as he came into the room. “I took the liberty of looking it over a minute ago in the stables.”
“It is not bad,” said I. There was never a man in the world who did not relish praise of his horse, and I warmed to my new acquaintance. “We are both, it seems, sleeping here to-night, and likely enough we are travelling the same road to-morrow.”
The young man shook his head.
“I could wish indeed,” said he, “that we might be fellow-travellers, but though it may well be we follow the same road, we do not, alas, travel in the same way,” and he showed me his boots which were thickly covered with dust. “My horse fell some half-a-dozen miles from here and snapped a leg. I must needs walk to-morrow so far as where I trust to procure another—that is to say,” he continued, “if I do not have to keep my bed, for I have taken a devilish chill this evening,” and drawing up his chair to the empty fireplace, he crouched over an imaginary fire and shivered.
Now since he sat in this attitude, I could not but notice his boots, and I fell to wondering what in the world he had done with his spurs. For he wore none, and since he had plainly not troubled to repair the disorder of his dress, it seemed strange that he should have gone to the pains of removing his spurs. However, I was soon diverted from this speculation by the distress into which Mr. Featherstone’s cold threw him. Featherstone was his name, as he was polite enough to tell me in the intervals of coughing, and I told him mine in return. At last his malady so increased that he called for the landlord, and bidding him light a great fire in his bedroom said he must needs go to bed
“I trust, however,” he continued politely to me, “that you, Mr. Berkeley, will prove a Samaritan, and keep me company for a while. For I shall not sleep, upon my word I shall not sleep a wink,” and he was so positive in his assurances that, though I was myself sufficiently tired, I thought it no more than kindness to fall in with his wishes.
Accordingly I followed him into his bedroom, where he lay in a great canopied bed, with a big fire blazing upon the hearth, and a bottle of rum with a couple of glasses upon a table at the bedside.
“It is an ague,” said he, “which I caught upon the Gambia River, and from which I have ever since suffered many inconveniences;” he poured out the rum into the glasses, and wished me with great politeness all prosperity.
It was no doubt, also, because he had voyaged on the Gambia River that he suffered no inconvenience from the heat of the room. But what with the hot August night, and the blazing fire, and the closed window, I became at once so drowsy that I could hardly keep my eyes open, and I wished him good-night.
“But you will not go,” said he. “We are but this moment acquainted, and to-morrow we shall wave a farewell each to the other. Let us, Mr. Berkeley, make something of the meanwhile, I beg you.”
I answered him that I did not wish to appear churlish, but that I should most certainly appear so if I fell asleep while we talked, which, in spite of myself, I was very likely to do.
“But I have a bottle of salts here,” said he, with a laugh, as he reached out of bed and fumbled with his coat. “I have a bottle of salts here which will infallibly persuade you from any thought of sleep,” and he drew out from the pocket of his coat a pack of cards.” Well, what do you say? “he continued, as I did not move.
“It is some while since I handled a card,” said I slowly.
“A game of picquet,” he suggested.
“It is a good game,” said I.
He flipped the edges of the cards with his thumb. I drew nearer to the bed.
“Well, one game then,” said I.
“To be sure,” said he, shuffling the cards.
“And the stakes must be low.”
“I hate a gambler myself.”
He cut the cards. I sat down on the bedside and dealt them.
“It is your elder,” said I.
He looked disconsolately at his hand.
“Upon my word,” said he. “Deuce take me if I know what to discard. I have no hand for picquet at all, though as luck will have it I have very good putt cards.”
I glanced through my hand.
“I have better putt cards than you,” said I.
“It is not likely,” he returned.
“I’ll make a wager of it,” I cried.
“Your horse,” said he, leaning up on his elbow. He spoke a trifle too eagerly, he sprang up on his elbow a trifle too quickly. I looked again through my hand, and I laid the cards down on the counterpane.
“No,” said I quietly. “It is very likely you are right: I have two treys and an ace, but you may have two treys and a deuce.”
“Why, this is purely magical,” he exclaimed, with the most natural burst of laughter imaginable. “Two treys and a deuce! Those are indeed the cards I hold.”
He fell back again in the bed, and we played our single game of picquet. He won the game. Indeed, he could not but win it, for I paid no attention whatever to the cards which I held, or to how I should draw, or—and this perhaps was my most important omission-—to how Mr. Featherstone shuffled and dealt. The truth is, I had suddenly become very curious about Mr. Featherstone. I had recalled his great politeness of manner. I remarked his face, which was of an almost girlish delicacy. I reflected that here was a man in a great hurry to travel by the same road as myself, and I remembered how I had learned that trick by which he had tried to outwit me of my horse. Even as it was I had all but fallen into the trap. I should most certainly have done so had not Lieutenant Clutterbuck once explained it to me on a particular occasion. I remembered that occasion very clearly as I sat on the bed playing this game of picquet by the light of a single candle, and I wondered whether I could fit Mr. Featherstone with another name.
“I am afraid,” said he, “that this is a capote,” as I played my last card.
“But the loss is trifling,” said I, “and I have kept my horse.”
“Very true,” said he, whistling softly between his teeth. “You have kept your horse,” and as I wished him good-night, he added, “you will be careful to shut the door behind you, won’t you?”
But before the words were out of his mouth, he was seized with so violent a paroxysm of shivering that he could barely stammer out the end of the sentence.
“These infernal fevers,” said he, with a groan.
“I notice, however,” I returned, “that they are intermittent,” and latching the door as he again requested me, I went off to my own room.
I could not but wonder what trickery the fire was intended to help, for until the last fit of the ague had seized him, he had given no sign of any sickness since he had brought out the cards. However, there was a more important question to occupy my mind. I had little doubt that Mr. Featherstone was Cullen Mayle: I had little doubt that he was hurrying as fast as he could to the Scillies, since he had received no answer to the message which he sent with the negro. But should I tell him of the men who watched for his coming, keeping their watches as at sea? On the one side their presence meant danger to Cullen Mayle, it could hardly mean anything else; and since it meant danger he should be warned of it.
On the other hand, the watchers might have tired of their watching and given it up as profitless. Besides I was by no means sure in what light Cullen himself was to be regarded. Was his return to Tresco, a prospect to be welcomed or deplored? Did he come as a friend to that distracted girl alone in the lonely house by the sand? I could not answer these questions. I knew Cullen to be a knave, I knew that the girl cared for him, and these two items made the sum of my knowledge. I turned over in my bed and fell asleep, thinking that my course might be clear to me in the morning.
And in the morning it was clear. I woke up with a mind made up. I had a horse; Cullen travelled on foot; since he had come so far on foot, it was not likely that he had the money to purchase a horse, for the story of the stumble and the broken leg I entirely disbelieved, and with the best of reasons. I had travelled myself along that road yesterday, and I had passed no disabled horse upon the way. I had therefore the advantage of Cullen. I would journey on without saying a word to him of my destination. I would on arriving take council with Dick Parmiter and Helen Mayle and seek to fathom the trouble. I should still have time to cross back to the mainland and hinder Cullen from attempting the passage.
Thus I planned to do, but the plan was never put to the test of action. For while I was still dressing, a loud hubbub and confusion filled the house. I opened my door. The noise came from the direction of Cullen’s room. I hastily slipped on my coat and ran down the passage. I could hear Cullen’s voice very loud above the rest, a woman or two protesting with a shrill indignation and the landlord trying to make all smooth, though what the bother was about I could not distinguish.
It seemed that the whole household was gathered in the room, though Mr. Featherstone still lay abed. The moment that I appeared in the doorway,
“Ah! here’s a witness,” he cried. “Mr. Berkeley, you were the last to leave me last night. You closed the door behind you? I was particular to ask you to close the door?”
“I remember that very well,” said I, “for I was wondering how in the world you could put up with the door closed and a blazing fire.”
“There!” cried Featherstone turning to the landlord. “You hear? Mr. Berkeley is a gentleman beyond reproach. He shut the door behind him, and this morning I find it wide open and my breeches gone. There is a thief, sir, in your inn, and we travellers must go on our way without breeches. It is the most inconsiderate theft that ever I heard of.”
“As for the breeches, sir,” began the landlord.
“I don’t care a button for them,” cried Featherstone. “But there was money in the breeches’ pockets. Fifteen guineas in gold, and a couple of bills on Mr. Nossiter, the banker at Exeter.”
“The bills can be stopped,” said the landlord. “We are but eighteen miles from Exeter.”
“But how am I to travel those miles; do you expect me to walk there in my shirt tails. No, I stay here in bed until my breeches are found, and, burn me, if I don’t eat up everything in the house,” and immediately he began to roar out for food. “I will have chops at once, and there’s a great sirloin of beef, and bring me a tankard of small ale.”
Then he turned again to me, and said pathetically,
“It is not the breeches I mind, though to be sure I shall cut a ridiculous figure on the highroad; no, nor the money, though I have not a stiver left. But I woke up this morning in the sweetest good-humour, and here am I in a violent passion at nine o’clock in the morning, and my whole day spoilt. It is so discouraging,” and he lay back upon the pillow as though he would have wept.
The landlord offered him his Sunday breeches. They were of red cloth, and a belted earl might wear them without shame.
“But not without discomfort,” grumbled Mr. Featherstone, contemplating the landlord who was of a large figure. “They will hang about me in swathes like a petticoat.”
“And as for the fifteen guineas,” said I, “my purse is to that amount at your disposal.”
“That is a very gentlemanly offer, Mr. Berkeley,” said he, “from one stranger to another. But I have a horror of borrowing. I cannot accept your munificence. No, I will walk in my host’s red cloth breeches as far as Rockbere, which to be sure is no more than twelve miles, quite penniless, but when I reach my friends, upon my word, I will make such a noise about this inn as will close its doors, strike me dead and stiff, if I don’t.”
His threat had its effect. The landlord, after the usual protestations that such an incident had never occurred before, that he had searched the house even to the servants’ boxes, and that he could make neither head nor tail of the business, wound up his harangue with an offer of five guineas.
“It is all I have in the house, sir,” said he, “and of course I shall charge you neither for food nor lodging.”
“Of course not,” said Mr. Featherstone indignantly. “Well, I must make the best of it, but oh! I woke up with so happy a disposition towards the world;” and dismissing the women he got up and dressed. The landlord fetched the five guineas and his red cloth breeches, which Featherstone drew on.
“Was ever a man so vilely travestied?” he said. “Sure, I shall be taken for a Hollander. That is hard for a person of some elegance,” and he tied his cravat and went grumbling from the room.
“This is a great misfortune, sir, for me,” said my host. “I have lived honest all my days. There is no one in the house who would steal; on that I would stake my life. I can make nothing of it.”
“Mr. Featherstone is quite recovered from his ague,” said I slowly. I crossed over to the empty fireplace heaped with the white ashes of the logs which had blazed there the night before.
“The fire no doubt did him some benefit.”
“That is precisely what I was thinking,” said I, and I knelt down on the hearth-rug and poked amongst the ashes with the shovel. Suddenly, the landlord uttered an exclamation and threw up the window. I heard the clatter of a horse’s hoofs upon the road. I got up from my knees and rushed to the window. As I leaned out Mr. Featherstone rode underneath and he rode my horse.
“Stop!” I shouted out.
“Mr. Berkeley,” he cried, airily waving his hand as he rode by, “you may hold very good putt cards, but you haven’t kept your horse.”
“You damned thief!” I yelled, and he turned in his saddle and put out his tongue. It is, if you think of it, a form of repartee to which there is no reply. In any case I doubt if I could have made any reply which would have reached his ears. For he had set the horse to a gallop and was far down the road.
I went back to the hearth where the landlord joined me. We both knelt down and raked away the ashes.
“What’s that?” said I, pointing to something blackened and scorched. The landlord picked it up.
“It is a piece of corduroy.”
“And here’s a bone button,” said I. “The ague was a sham, the fire a device to rob you. He came here without a penny piece and burnt his breeches last night. He has robbed you, he has robbed me, and he will reach the Scilly Islands first. How far is it to Rockbere?”
“I must walk those twelve miles?”
“Will I get a horse there?”
“It is doubtful.”
“He has a day’s start then at the least.”
So after all, though the horse did not stumble, nor the rider lie quiet by the roadside, he did not ride out of the forest at a gallop, and down the green bank into the open space beyond.