I WALKED that day into Rockbere, and taking the advice of the innkeeper with whom I lodged, I hired a hack and a guide from him the next morning and struck across country for the sea; for he assured me that I should most likely find a fishing smack at Topsham whose master would put me over to the Scillies, and that if the wind did but favour me I should reach the islands sooner that way than if I had the quickest horse under me that was ever foaled. It was of the greatest urgency that I should set foot on Tresco before Cullen Mayle. I had to risk something to achieve that object, and I risked the wind. It was in the northeast when I started from Rockbere and suited my purpose finely if it did but hold; so that I much regretted I was not already on the sea, and rode in a perpetual fear lest it should change its quarter. I came to Honiton Clyst that night, and to Topsham the next day, where I was fortunate enough to find a boat of some thirty tons and to come to an agreement with its master. He had his crew ready to his hand; he occupied the morning in provisioning the smack; and we stood out of the harbour in the evening, and with a steady wind on our quarter made a good run to the Start Point. Shortly after we passed the Start the wind veered round into the north, which did us no great harm, since these boats sail their best on a reach. We reached then with a soldier’s breeze, as the saying is, out to the Eddystone Rock and the Lizard Point.
It was directly after we had sighted the Lizard that the wind began to fall light, and when we were just off the Point it failed us altogether. I remember that night as well as any other period in the course of these incidents. I was running a race with Cullen Mayle, and I was beginning to think that it was not after all only on account of his peril that it was needful for me to reach Tresco before he did. These last two days I had been entirely occupied with the stimulation of that race and the inspiriting companionship of the sea. The waves foaming away from the bows and bubbling and hissing under the lee of the boat, the flaws of wind blistering the surface of the water as they came off the land towards us, making visible their invisible approach; the responsive spring of the boat, like a horse under the touch of a spur—these mere commonplaces to my companions had for me an engrossing enchantment. But on that evening at the Lizard Point the sea lay under the sunset a smooth, heaving prism of colours; we could hear nothing but the groaning of the blocks, the creaking of the boom’s collars against the masts; and the night came out from behind the land very peaceful and solemn, and solemnly the stars shone out in the sky. All the excitement of the last days died out of me. We swung up and down with the tide. Now the lights of Falmouth were visible to us at the bottom of the bay, now the Lizard obscured them from us. I was brought somehow to think of those last years of mine in London. They seemed very distant and strange to me in this clean air, and the pavement of St. James’s Street, which I had daily trodden, became an unacceptable thing.
About two o’clock of the morning a broad moon rose out of the sea, and towards daybreak a little ruffing breeze sprang up, and we made a gentle progress across the bay towards Land’s End; but the breeze sank as the sun came up, and all that day we loitered, gaining a little ground now and then and losing it again with the turn of the tide. It was not until the fifth evening that we dropped anchor in the road between St. Mary’s Island and Tresco.
I waited until it was quite dark, and was then quietly rowed ashore with my valise in the ship’s dinghy. I landed on Tresco near to the harbour of New Grimsby. It was at New Grimsby that Dick Parmiter lived, Clutterbuck had told me, and the first thing I had to do was to find Dick Parmiter without arousing any attention.
Now on an island like Tresco, sparsely inhabited and with no commerce, the mere presence of a stranger would assuredly provoke comment. I walked, therefore, very warily towards the village. One house I saw with great windows all lighted up, and that I took to be the Palace Inn, where Adam Mayle and Cullen used to sit side by side on the settle and surprise the visitors by their unlikeness to one another. There was a small cluster of cottages about the inn with a lane straggling between, and further away, round the curve of the little bay, were two huts close to the sea.
It would be in one of these that Dick Parmiter lived, and I crept towards them. There was no light whatever in the first of them, but the door stood open, and a woman and a man stood talking in the doorway. I lay down in the grass and crawled towards them, if by any chance I might hear what they said. For a while I could distinguish nothing of what they said, but at last the man cried in a clear voice, “Good-night, Mrs. Grudge,” and walked off to the inn. The woman went in and closed the door. I was sure then that the next cottage was the one for which I searched. I walked to it; there was a light in the window and the sound of voices talking.
I hesitated whether to go in boldly and ask for Dick. But it would be known the next morning that a stranger had come for Dick; no doubt, too, Dick’s journey to London was known, and the five men watching the house on Merchant’s Point would be straightway upon the alert. Besides Dick might not have reached home. I walked round the hut unable to decide what I should do, and as I came to the back of it a light suddenly glowed in a tiny window there. I cautiously approached the window and looked through. Dick Parmiter was stripping off his jersey, and was alone.
I tapped on the window. Dick raised his head, and then put out the light, so that I could no longer see into the room; but in a moment the window was slowly lifted, and the boy’s voice whispered:
“Is that you, Mr. Mayle?”
I drew a breath of relief. I was ahead of Cullen Mayle, though he had stolen my horse.
“No,” said I; “but I have come on Cullen Mayle’s business.”
The boy leaned out of the window and peered into my face. But voices were raised in the room beyond this cupboard, and a woman’s voice cried out, “Dick, Dick!”
“That’s mother,” said Dick to me. “Wait! I will come out to you.”
He closed the window, and I lay down again in the grass, and waited there for perhaps an hour. A mist was coming up from the sea and thickening about the island; the starlight was obscured; wreaths of smoke, it seemed, came in puffs between myself and the house, and at last I heard the rustling of feet in the grass.
“Dick,” said I in a whisper, and the lad came to me.
“I remember you,” he said. “You were at Lieutenant Clutterbuck’s. Why have you come?”
“Upon my word,” said I, “I should find it difficult to tell you.”
Indeed, it would have taken me half the night to explain the motives which had conjoined to this end.
“And now that you are come, what is it you mean to do?”
“Dick,” I returned, “you ask the most disconcerting questions. You tramp up to London with a wild story of a house watched——”
“You come as a friend, then,” he broke in eagerly.
“As your friend, yes.”
Dick sat silent for a moment.
“I think so,” he said at length.
“And here’s a trifle to assure you,” I said. “Cullen Mayle is not very far behind me. You may expect him upon Tresco any morning.”
Dick started to his feet.
“Are you sure of that? You do not know him. How are you sure?”
“Clutterbuck described him to me. I overtook him on the road, and stayed the same night with him at an inn. He robbed me and robbed the landlord. There was a trick at the cards, too. Not a doubt of it, Cullen Mayle is close on my heels. Are those five men still watching the house?”
“Yes. They are still upon Tresco. They lodge here and there with the fishermen, and make a pretence to burn kelp or to fish for their living; but their business is to watch the house, as you will see to-night. There are six of them now, not five.”
He led me as he spoke towards the “Palace Inn,” where a light still burned in the kitchen. The cottages about the inn, however, were by this time dark, and we could advance without risk of being seen. Dick stopped me under the shadow of a wall not ten yards from the inn. A red blind covered the lower part of the window, but above it I could see quite clearly into the kitchen.
“Give me aback,” whispered Dick, who reached no higher than my shoulder. I bent down and Dick climbed on to my shoulders, whence he too could see the interior of the kitchen.
“That will go,” said he in a little, and slid to the ground. “Can you see a picture on the wall?”
“And a man sitting under the picture—a squat, squabby man with white hair and small eyes very bright?”
“That is the sixth man. He came to Tresco while I was in London. I found him here when I came back two days ago. But I had seen him before. He had come to Tresco before. His name is George Glen.”
“George Glen!” said I. “Wait a bit,” and I took another look at the man in the kitchen. “He was quartermaster with Adam Mayle at Whydah, eh? He is the stranger you brought over to St. Mary’s Church on the day when Cullcn Mayle sat in the stocks.”
“Yes,” said Dick, and he asked me how I knew.
“Clutterbuck told me,” I replied.
From the inn we walked some few yards along a lane until we were free of the cottages, and then leaving the path, mounted inland up a hill of gorse. Dick gave me on the way an account of his journey homewards and the difficulties he had surmounted. I paid only an indifferent attention to his story, for I was wholly occupied with George Glen’s presence upon the island. Glen had come first of all to visit Adam Mayle, and was now watching for Cullen. What link was there between his two visits? I was inclined to think that George Glen was the clue to the whole mystery. In spite of my inattention, I gathered this much however from Dick. That tramp of his to London was well known throughout the islands. His mother had given him up for dead when he went away, and had thrashed him soundly when he returned, but the next day had made him out a great hero in her talk. She did not know why he went to London, for Dick had the discretion to hold his tongue upon that point.
So much Parmiter had told me when he suddenly stopped and listened. I could hear nothing, however much I strained my ears, and in a moment or two Dick began to move on. The mist was very thick about us—I could not see a yard beyond my nose; but we were now going down hill, so that I knew we had crossed the ridge of the island and were descending towards the harbour of New Grimsby and the house under Merchant’s Rock.
We had descended for perhaps a couple of hundred yards; then Dick stopped again. He laid a hand upon my arm and dragged me down among the gorse, which was drenched with the fog.
“What is it?” said I.
“Hush,” he whispered; and even as he whispered I saw a sort of brown radiance through the fog a long way to my left. The next instant a speck of clear light shone out in the heart of this radiance: it was the flame of a lantern, and it seemed miles away. I raised myself upon my elbows to watch it. Dick pulled my elbow from beneath me, and pressed me down flat in the grass; and it was fortunate that he did, for immediately the lantern loomed out of the fog not a dozen yards away. I heard it rattle as it swung, and the man who carried it tramped by so near to me that if I had stretched out my hand I could have caught him by the ankle and jerked him off his feet. It was the purest good fortune that he did not detect us, and we lay very still until the rustle of the footsteps had altogether died away. “Is that one of them?” I asked.
“Yes; William Blads. He lodges with Mrs. Crudge next to our cottage.”
We continued to descend through the gorse for another quarter of an hour or so until an extraordinary sound at our feet brought us both to an halt. It was the strangest melancholy screeching sound that ever I had heard: it was so harsh it pierced the ears; it was so wild and eerie that I could hardly believe a voice uttered it. It was like a shrill cry of pain uttered by some live thing that was hardly human. It startled me beyond words, and the more so because it rose out of the fog directly at our feet. Dick Parmiter trembled at my side.
“Quick,” he whispered in a shaking voice; “let us go! Oh, let us go!”
But he could not move for all his moaning. His limbs shook as though he had the fever; terror chained him there to the ground. Had I not known the boy under other circumstances, I should have set him down for a coward.
I took a step forward. Dick caught hold of my arm and muttered something, but his voice so wavered and gasped I could not distinguish what he said. I shook his arm off, and again stepped forward for one, two, three paces. As I took the third pace the ground suddenly sloped, my feet slipped on the wet grass; I let go of my valise, and I fell to my full length upon my back, and slid. And the moment I began to slide my feet touched nothing. I caught at the grass, and the roots of it came away in my hands. I turned over on my face. Half my body was now hanging over the edge. I hung for a second by my waist, and as I felt my waist slipping, I struck out wildly upon each side with my arms. My right arm struck against a bush of gorse; I seized hold of it, and it bent, but it did not break. I lifted a knee carefully, set it on the edge, and so crawled up the slope again.
Dick was lying on his face peering down towards me.
“My God,” said he, “I thought you had fallen; “and reaching out his hands, he caught both my arms as though he was afraid I should slip again. “Oh, quick,” he said, “let us go!”
And again I heard the shrill screech rise up from that hollow into which I had so nearly fallen. It was repeated and repeated with a regular interval between—an interval long enough for Dick to reiterate his eager prayer.
“It has begun again,” said I.
“It has never ceased since we first heard it,” said Dick, and no doubt he spoke the truth; only I had been deaf to it from the moment my foot slipped until now. “Let us go,” and picking up my valise he hurried me away, turning his head as he went, shuddering whenever he heard that cry.
“But it may be some one in distress—some one who needs help.”
“No, no/’ he cried; “it is no one. I will tell you to-morrow.”
We skirted the top of the hollow, and once more descended. The fog showed no sign of clearing, but Parmiter walked with an assured tread, and in a little time he began to recover his spirits.
“We are close to the house,” said he.
“Dick, you are afraid of ghosts,” said I; and while I spoke he uttered a cry and clung to my arm. A second later something brushed past my hand very quickly. I just saw it for an instant as it flitted past, and then the darkness swallowed it up.
Dick blurted out this fable: the souls of dead drowned sailormen kept nightly tryst on Castle Down.
“That was no spirit,” said I. “Play the man, Dick. Did you ever meet a spirit that trod with the weight of a body?”
I could hear the sound of feet rustling the grass beneath us. Dick listened with his hand to his ear.
“The tread is very light,” said he.
“That is because it is a woman who treads.”
“No woman would be abroad here in this fog at this time,” he protested.
“Nevertheless, it was a woman; for I saw her, and her dress brushed against my hand. It was a woman, and you cried out at her; so that if there is any one else upon the watch to-night, it is very likely we shall have him upon our heels.”
That argument sobered him, and we went forward again without speaking to each other, and only halting now and again to listen. In a very short while we heard the sea booming upon the beach, and then Dick stepped forward yet more warily, feeling about with his hands.
“There should be a fence hereabouts,” said he, and the next moment I fell over it with a great clatter. A loud whistle sounded from the beach—another whistle answered behind us, and I heard the sound of a man running up from the sand. We both crouched in the grass close by the palisade, and again the fog saved us. I heard some one beating about in the grass with a stick, but he did not come near us, and at last he turned back to the sea.
“You see,” said Dick, “I told Lieutenant Clutterbuck the truth. The house is watched.”
“Devil a doubt of it,” said I. “Do you go forward and see if you can get in.”
He came back to me in a little space of time, saying that the door was barred, and that he could see no light through any chink. He had stolen all round the house; he had rapped gently here and there at a window, but there was no one waking.
“And what are we to do now?” said he. “If I make a clatter and rouse the house, we shall rouse Cullen’s enemies, too.”
“It would not be wise to put them on the alert, the more particularly since Cullen Mayle may be here to-morrow. I will go back to the Palace Inn, sleep the night there, and come over here boldly in the morning.” And I got up and shouldered my valise again. But Dick stopped me.
“I have a better plan than that,” said he, “for George Glen is staying at the Palace Inn. What if you slept in the house here to-night! I can come over early to-morrow and tell Miss Helen who you are, and why you have come.”
“But how am I to get into the house, without you rouse the household?”
“There is a window. It is the window of Cullen Mayle’s room. You could get through it with my help.”
It seemed in many ways the best plan that could be thought of, but certain words of Clutterbuck’s that my meddling at all in the matter would be nothing but an impertinence came back very forcibly to me. But I heard Dick Parmiter speaking, and the thought slipped instantly from my mind.
“I helped Cullen Mayle through the window, the night his father drove him from the house,” said he, “and——”
“What’s that you say? “I asked eagerly. “The night that Cullen Mayle was driven from the house, he climbed back into his room!”
“Tell me about it, and be quick!” said I. I had my own reason for urging him, and I listened with all my attention to every word he spoke. He told me the sequel of the story which Clutterbuck had related in my lodging at St. James’s Street.
“I was waiting for him outside here on the beach,” said he; “and when the door was closed behind him, he came straight towards me. ‘And where am I to sleep to-night, Dick?’ said he. I told him that he could have my bed over at New Grimsby, but he refused it. ‘I’m damned if I sleep in a rat-hole,’ he said, ‘when by putting my pride in my pocket I can sleep in my own bed’; and with my help he clambered on to an outhouse, and so back into his own room.”
“When did he leave the island, then? “I asked. “The next morning? But no one saw him go?”
“No,” answered Dick. “I sailed him across the same night. About three o’clock of the morning he came and tapped softly upon my window, just as you did to-night. It was that which made me think you were Cullen come back. He bade me slip out to him without any noise, and together we carried my father’s skiff down to the water. I sailed him across to St. Mary’s. He made me swear never to tell a word of his climbing back into his room.”
“Oh, he made you swear that?”
“Yes, he said he would rip my heart out if I broke my oath. Well, I’ve kept it till to-night. No one knows but you. I got back to Tresco before my father had stirred.”
“A barque put out from St. Mary’s to Cornwall with the first of the ebb in the morning. I suppose he persuaded the captain to take him.”
Parmiter’s story set me thinking, and I climbed over the palisade after him without further objection. He came to a wall of planks; Dick set himself firmly against it and bent his shoulders.
“This is an outhouse,” said he. “From my shoulders you can reach the roof. From the roof you can reach the window. You can force the catch of the window with a knife.”
“It will be an awkward business,” said I doubtfully, “if I wake the house.”
“There is no fear of that,” answered Dick. “With any other window I would not say no. The other rooms are separated only by a thin panelling of wood, and at one end of the house you can almost hear a mouse scamper at the other. Mr. Cullen’s room, however, is a room built on, its inner wall is the outer wall of the house, it is the one room where you could talk secrets and run no risk of being overheard.”
“Very well,” said I slowly, for this speech too set me thinking. “I will risk it. Come over early to-morrow, Dick. I shall cut an awkward figure without you do,” and getting on to his shoulder, I clambered up on to the roof of the outhouse. He handed my valise to me; I pushed back the catch of the window with the blade of my knife, lifted it, threw my leg over the sill and silently drew myself into the room. The room was very dark, but my eyes were now accustomed to the gloom. I could dimly discern a great fourposter bed. I shut the window without noise, set my valise in a corner, drew off my boots and lay down upon the bed.